CHAPTER 4. THE REAL PROBLEM: DISAGREEMENT WITH EPISTEMIC
1.1 Consensus Is Too Strong Of A Metric For Determining
The first thing I want to challenge is an implausible assumption undergirding premise (4): namely, lack of consensus is an indication of unreliability. Why think a thing like that? More specifically, why think there should be consensus in a domain that is very difficult? Getting the truth in challenging domains sometimes requires hard work, extended periods of time, and the cultivation and exercise of the right epistemic virtues; moreover, it requires a willingness to know the truth regardless of the cost. Furthermore, it seems some
epistemic peers may be epistemically gifted better than other epistemic peers yet still be considered epistemic peers in some broad sense of the concept. For example, there are many professional athletes that play sport X, but some are still athletically gifted better than other professional athletes.
I am a good perceiver just as my friend—the radiologist—is a good perceiver. After all, my perceptual abilities are better than average; I have 20-15 vision. But I can’t see
153 Sanford Goldberg, “Defending Philosophy in the Face of Systematic Disagreement,” in Diego E.
subtle, hairline fractures in x-rays or diagnose tumors or ligament tears by looking at CAT scans like a skillful radiologist. Radiologists can make finer discriminations than others. And even amongst radiologists, there is going to be better perceivers than others. Not every radiologist is going to be a member of the set of best radiologists or most reliable radiologist. But they are still radiologists and can discriminate some things better than most people can. So, it’s a fact about our cognitive abilities that some people have better ones than others, which is why we recognize some professional athletes and radiologists as better than others. So, I don’t see why one should accept a principle that says if a cognitive ability or epistemic method m is reliable at getting the truth in domain d, then there will be a consensus among the community of participants pursuing truths in domain d. For if knowledge is an achievement, then getting the truth because of an ability is not going to be easy in domains where the subject matter is hard. Thus, it’s no surprise consensus is lacking in some domains.
Or consider this way of thinking about it. There are only a small set of people who make it to the professional level in sports. So why assume when it comes to philosophy or other intellectual domains, humans are equally equipped to get the truth? More carefully: why assume that if any person can achieve cognitive contact with reality in one specific domain, then virtually everyone else has that same ability? Thus, I don’t see why one should accept a principle that says if a cognitive ability or epistemic method is reliable at getting the truth in domain d, then there will be a consensus among the community of participants pursuing truths in domain d. Again, if knowledge is an achievement, then getting the truth because of an ability is not going to be easy in domains where it is hard. Granted, it would be nice if certain methods enjoyed the kind of consensus shared by others. But I’m not willing to grant that
methods which don’t share the same degree of consensus as other methods therefore lack the kind of reliability needed for one to avoid rationality or normative defeaters.
Consider this analogy as a way to drive home the point. In a normal environment, all professional baseball players can hit a beach ball that is slowly tossed to them in a normal environment and circumstances from twenty feet away, 100% of the time. Such an achievement is easy to do. The fact that everyone can do it, indeed, indicates how reliable they are achieving such things. But not many players can achieve base hits more than 30% of the time. Indeed, out of the (roughly) twenty-thousand major league baseball players that
have a lifetime batting average of .300 or higher, there are fewer than 200.154 Because this
kind of achievement is difficult, we should expect a small percentage of achievers. Similarly, once the domain moves from that which is epistemically easy to that which is hard, there is going to be pervasive disagreement. But this doesn’t indicate that our cognitive abilities and methods are unreliable tout court any more than inferring from the fact that only one percent of all major league baseball players have a lifetime batting average of .300 or higher that some major league players are not reliable at hitting .300 tout court. It’s just some cognitive achievements are very difficult while others are easier. The former achievements will sit in company with many who disagree; the latter will sit in company with many who agree. So, we shouldn’t be surprised there is disagreement in domains like philosophy, religion, politics, and value theory given the subject matter is so difficult.155
154 See Baseball Almanac, http://www.baseball-almanac.com/hitting/hibavg1.shtml
155 Indeed, philosophers like Collin McGinn et al. don’t think evolution has bequeathed to us faculties that
are equipped to do philosophy, esp., in areas like philosophy of mind. More specifically, McGinn holds to ‘transcendental naturalism,’ which is the view that the brains evolution has bequeathed to us are, in principle, ill-equipped to solve many philosophical and scientific problems. See Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy:
This is not to say that math and science are not difficult subjects. Indeed, they can be tremendously difficult. But much of the subject matter is publically accessible unlike much of the subject matter in philosophy. God, moral properties, mental properties, intuitions, a priori knowledge, etc. are controversial entities that if they exist can’t be publically disclosed, and thus, verified like we can with proofs in math. Nor can such entities, if they exist, be publically accessible, domesticated, and disclosed for others to verify as can be done in the hard sciences. Therefore, I only mean to say that humans may, in general, be better equipped to get at truths in science and math than truths in philosophy because that which is publically accessible can benefit from collaborative thinking and achieve levels of consensus that don’t easily generalize to domains like philosophy.
Therefore, assuming that the aforementioned domains should fit the pattern of consensus we see in fields like math and science in order to determine reliability is too strong of a standard and overlooks the ontological differences within the subject matter, assuming such entities exist. Furthermore, because we lack an objective, external way—let alone a consensus—of determining what degree of reliability a philosophical method has that employs, say, intuitions or, say, perception of abstract entities, we can’t say it’s
objectively unreliable. That is, we can’t say definitively that intuitions or certain methods of belief formation fall below 50% reliability.