Elgin on Persistent Disagreement

This is the second installment in my series of posts on essays on the problem of disagreement.

I like Carolyn’s succinct description of the disagreement problem:

The disagreement problem comes up when I (1) think that P, (2) think that some other person thinks that not P, and (3) think that that other person is equally liable to be right about whether P.

The question is whether in light of (2) and (3) I should suspend judgment about P, and the worry is that since (2) and (3) will almost certainly be satisfied with respect to judgments/beliefs about matters of importance, we’ll end up having to become agnostic about most matters of importance.  Kornblith, whose essay on this problem I discussed in the first installment of this series, defends this broad agnosticism as the rational response (in certain contexts, at least) to the disagreement problem (DP).

So that’s where we are.  In “Persistent Disagreement,” Catherine Elgin argues that DP rests on a mistake.  She then suggests a different way of conceiving the problem.  (This is a standard move in philosophy–enter a room where everyone is arguing about P and explain why the entire debate about P is somehow fundamentally wrongheaded.  This is a powerful philosophical move when it works, but typically it doesn’t work.)  Anyway, Elgin’s point is simple and straightforward:  DP is about what we should do with our beliefs in light of epistemic peer disagreement (EPD), but our beliefs are not subject to our control in the way DP presumes, and so DP is a pseudo-problem.  More elaborately:

1.  DP raises the question: Ought I to persist in my belief that P, or ought I to suspend my belief that P, in light of my peer’s belief that not-P?

2.  Ought implies can.

3.  Thus, DP presumes that I can either choose to persist in my belief that P, or that I can choose to suspend my belief that P.

4.  But I cannot choose my beliefs in this way.  Whether I persist in a belief or not is not within my control–I cannot simply decide to believe P or believe not-P or suspend belief about P.

5.  Therefore, DP is idle, since it assumes what is false–viz., that we have a choice about what to believe and/or how strongly we believe it.

Elgin goes on to suggest that we refigure the DP as an issue concerning not belief but rather acceptance.  To accept that P is to “adopt a policy of being willing to treat P as a premise in assertoric inference or as a basis for action where our interests are cognitive.” Now I’m not entirely clear what that means, but so far as I understand what Elgin is up to, it’s a cool move.  Her idea seems to be that the best reasons for sticking to one’s guns in the face of EPD is that our thinking would be cognitively impoverished if we could only use those beliefs which command the universal assent of our epistemic peers.  As she puts it: “Suspending acceptance in the face of peer disagreement…would probably be excessively cognitively costly.”

I’m not sure yet what I think about Elgin’s argument, or even whether I understand it, but it seems at first glance a more promising defense of what she calls Resoluteness in the face of EPD than a response like Peter Van Inwagen’s, who confesses that in cases of EPD he generally assumes that he must have a philosophical insight that his opponent simply lacks and which Van Inwagen is incapable of bringing his opponent to see.  Elgin’s appeal to cognitive-practical reasons for being ‘resolute’ seems like a potentially fruitful move.


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4 Responses to Elgin on Persistent Disagreement

  1. Nates says:

    Interesting. But if the point is simply that we need to believe (or accept?) things for the sake of our practical needs, then why should it be our own beliefs. Wouldn’t it be just as practical to adopt the policy of being resolute on weekdays, and caving in to peer beliefs on the weekends? In other words, does Elgin give us any reason to stick with our own beliefs rather than adopting another’s?

  2. Nates says:

    Also, a missed joke opportunity: Elgin’s clearly lost her marbles.

  3. David says:

    Yeah, I see your point here, Nates. I would go back and read the last few pages of Elgin’s essay, but I left the book at the office. So I’ll try to clarify her position on Monday.

  4. CreatureAdam says:

    I keep thinking that Epistemic Peer Disagreement sounds like what happens in the Terminator sequels: where what you have are two robots — or wayhay cybenetic organisms :-p — each programmed with the same information, each having radically different objectives. Each knows what the other is likely to do with respect to Judgment Day and finding John Connor; and in fact, they second guess one another very efficiently. But both lack the capacity for an important kind of judging; surely it doesn’t follow from this when you watch the films that there isn’t a goody and a baddy?

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