Against ego-centric epistemology

Kolya Wolf

From the archives: Posted on 24 Jun., 2002

[Kolya had asked:]

1) Generally speaking, when you encounter people who persist in upholding different values from your own, do you always conclude that they are being irrational, or do you sometimes find that it is possible for a person to disagree with your values and still be rational?

A poster replied:

I ask them to explain what I’m missing. If they say stupid things I conclude they are irrational. If the discussion ends because someone has to go, I may not conclude anything. And if we end up agreeing, then the person rules. Agreeing to disagree and both be rational is not an option. Any substantive dispute can be analyzed. We can isolate exactly where our views diverge. And then we can decide what makes sense. In the disagreement is factual we can look things up and discuss which facts it makes the most sense to think true. So, yeah, if we can’t agree, and the person insists I’m wrong, I basically end up concluding they are irrational.

[Kolya had asked:]

2) If you think the latter, by admitting that two rational people can have mutually conflicting values, are you not endorsing moral relativism?

The poster replied:

Well, I was envisioning a debate about things we know enough about to discuss. But I just realised if the question was “Is football or frisbee objectively a better sport?” then it’s quite likely for rational people to disagree, because we really don’t know how to figure out the answer. Although we could agree that we don’t know how to figure it out, I’m still gonna personally like frisbee. Though if someone actually had valid reasons it was worse I’d listen.

[Kolya had asked:]

3) Could you please teach me the criterion that will enable me to tell apart the cases when disagreeing with your values would be objectively immoral, and when it would merely indicate a rationally legitimate difference of opinion?

The poster replied:

Well, try to explain where the disagreement comes from. If you disagree because the other person is a relativist or hardcore theist or mystic, I think that’s a good enough answer. What I like to say is this “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth.” People who cannot point out a flaw but don’t agree either are being irrational. When rational people talk their views converge and either they end up agreeing or bored.

Taken at face value, your answers (which I think are representative of many, if not most libertarians) seem to me to entail an extreme form of rationalism. You might say, “Hey, what’s wrong with that? The more rationalism, the better – you can’t get too much of a good thing”. But if you said that, I think you would be mistaken.

For the sake of brevity, let me express my disagreement with your position (as I understand it) by contrasting it with Popper’s position (as I understand it). Popper criticised two opposing views of how we come by our knowledge of objective reality: the view that knowledge can be induced from observations, and the view that it can be deduced by reason.

Popper’s proposal was that there is no direct route to finding knowledge. Knowledge can only be found by searching among an infinite number of possible – but, generally, as yet unknown – theories.

From Popper’s perspective relying on reason alone to discern the truth is like trying to clap with one hand. All reason can do, is guide our choices between rival theories. It can help us discern (roughly speaking) which of two theories is more likely to be false. Reason can neither generate true theories, nor can it recognise true theories, nor can it quantify how true a theory is. The fact that we have no reason to doubt a theory, is not a reason for believing it to be true.

If you weren’t aware of this aspect of Popper’s epistemology, you might be appalled by what seems like a relativists’ charter. But that would be a profound misunderstanding of Popper. He was as fierce an opponent of relativism as you are likely to find in all of philosophy.

How then did he reconcile his belief that reason cannot discover truth, with his vehement repudiation of relativism? The answer to that question was Popper’s Big Idea: Certainty is the enemy of objective knowledge. In other words, philosophy can either deliver the subjective experience of certainty, or it can deliver progressively truer theories. But not both.

Popper’s reason for this is that as there exists no criterion of truth (only a criterion of apparent falsity), any philosophy that claims otherwise is bound to lead away from an objective improvement in our knowledge. And that is precisely what seems implicit in the answers you gave to my questions. You say:

Agreeing to disagree and both be rational is not an option. Any substantive dispute can be analysed. We can isolate exactly where our views diverge. And then we can decide what makes sense. So, yeah, if we can’t agree, and the person insists I’m wrong, I basically end up concluding they are irrational. What I like to say is this “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth.” People who cannot point out a flaw but don’t agree either are being irrational. When rational people talk their views converge and either they end up agreeing or bored.

The way I read this is that you are saying that, in general, when there is a controversy about some idea, reason can tell us which theory is true. According to Popper, that belief is inimical to the growth of knowledge, because it tries to substitutes what is ultimately a subjective criterion – one’s inner conviction of truth, for the only effective method of converging on the truth, namely looking for refutations.

Moreover, in Popperian terms, your statement that “Agreeing to disagree and both be rational is not an option”, is quite untenable. At any time there will be an infinite number of things we cannot agree on, because nobody has yet conjectured true enough theories to bridge the apparent inconsistencies in our knowledge. Disagreement can be due to irrationality, but it can be, and very often is, due to ignorance on all sides. Only if we were omniscient would your above statement be true. But that presumption is literally as far removed from Popper’s presumption of fallibilism, as it is possible to be.

Finally, your policy that “if we can’t agree, and the person insists I’m wrong, I basically end up concluding they are irrational” seem to me, itself, to constitute a relativists’ charter. If we all followed this same policy, we would all be entitled to conclude that those who disagree with us are being irrational. And that implies that in any controversy, everybody is equally entitled to conclude that their particular theory is objectively true. I put it to you that the only epistemology which allows mutually contradictory theories to claim to be justified, is relativism.

The only way out of this predicament would be if the policy of treating intractable disagreement as a philosophical justification of one’s own views, was only valid when applied by you.

Now, I admit that I cannot prove that this is false. Therefore you are logically free to maintain that you, alone, are the arbiter of objective truth. But if you do, I may be tempted to reciprocate by denying that you exist at all. And to borrow one of your arguments: “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth.”

Kolya Wolf, 2002, ‘Against ego-centric epistemology’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/against-ego-centric-epistemology/