CHAPTER 4. THE REAL PROBLEM: DISAGREEMENT WITH EPISTEMIC
1.2 Consensus Is Relative To Periods Of Time Or Current Paradigms
Second, premise (4) assumes consensus to be a sufficient condition for reliability. Goldberg and Kornblith, for example, appeal to the kind of consensus enjoyed by science. They use this data to argue for the reliability of science’s methods. But I want to argue that it takes too rosy a view of science that overlooks the history of science and even its current state.
New discoveries, new theories, new instruments, and new paradigms have caused consensus opinion to shift and it will most likely shift again, esp., in light of the motivation to make general relativity compatible with quantum mechanics. Moving from
geocentricism to heliocentricism is but one familiar example. But unless one is willing to adopt a coherence view of truth and its related problems, we must acknowledge that consensus—though a strong indicator of justification—is not sufficient for getting the truth.
In addition, because there is no neutral procedure for settling cases of disagreement over conflicting intuitions between two or more disputants within (say) philosophy, it doesn’t follow that the sciences are immune from the same problem. For example, the hard sciences, which Goldberg and Kornblith take to be employing reliable methods as evidenced by the amount of consensus they enjoy, depends upon (among other things) the method of perception. But the method of perception itself can’t be neutrally verified as reliable without relying upon it thereby begging the question. So why think scientific beliefs that currently enjoy a consensus is an indication of a type of reliability that is sufficient to get the truth? For there can certainly be disagreement over such
“consensus” beliefs sourced in basic perception. To appreciate these possibilities consider the following case.
Suppose that there were a diversity of sense perceptual doxastic practices as diverse as [the belief outputs sourced in intuitions] are in fact. Suppose that in certain cultures there were a well established “Cartesian” practice of seeing what is visually perceived as an indefinitely extended medium that is more or less concentrated at various points, rather than, as in our
“Aristotelian” practice, as made up of more or less discrete objects scattered about in space. In other cultures we find a “Whiteheadian”
[perceptual method] to be equally socially established; here the visual field is seen as made up of momentary events growing out of each other in a continuous process. Let’s further suppose that each of these practices serves its practitioners equally well in their dealings with the environment. We may even suppose that each group has developed physical science, in its
own terms, to about as high a pitch as the others. But suppose further that, in this imagined situation, we are as firmly wedded to our “Aristotelian” [perceptual method] as we are in fact. The Cartesian and Whitheadian ausländer seem utterly outlandish to us, and we find it difficult to take seriously the idea that they may be telling it like it is. Nevertheless, we can find no neutral grounds on which to argue effectively for the greater
accuracy of our way of doing it.156
Notice that such a case does not involve an object that cognizers believe appears to them a certain way and then they allow their metaphysical theories to inform them of the true nature of the object. Rather, the Cartesian sees the object as a continuous medium, which is taken to be an accurate description of reality. Similarly, the Whiteheadian believes the appearance of the object as a flux of momentary events accurately describes reality. Because each community shares equal success in predictability and advancing science, there is nothing epistemically irresponsible or irrational about each scientist’s beliefs, despite the extant disagreement over the nature of material objects. (And scientists today may, indeed, disagree over the ontological properties had by objects they perceive and/or disagree that the “objects” perceived really are individuated substances. Here the alleged consensus is the result of extant practices and conventions for how the scientific community have agreed to talk about their findings and leaving aside their metaphysical analysis of “objects” they perceive.
Furthermore, despite the Aristotelians, Cartesians, and Whitheadians lacking noncircular reasons for the reliability of their method for forming perceptual beliefs, it’s not irrational for them to continue forming beliefs the way they do. One of the three may be employing the most reliable method, but there is no objectively neutral, noncircular way to demonstrate it as such. Alston’s envisaged case, then, captures why a lack of consensus is not sufficient to establish a method as unreliable. Accordingly, a lack of consensus is not
156 William P. Alston. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (London: Cornell University Press,
sufficient to provide a subjective rationality defeater for beliefs sourced in philosophical method full stop. The fact there is disagreement over the outputs of intuitions is, for example, no reason to reject its reliability than it is to reject the reliability of perceptual belief outputs because people disagree over the ontological status of the “objects” perceived.
1.3 Intuitions Aren’t Fixed and Can Possibly Become More Accurate Over Time