Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

Is there a version of the equal weight view of disagreement that is reasonable and non trivial?

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So, I haven’t read up on the “epistemic significance of disagreement” literature (as may become obvious below). I do intend to, but I currently have several other things on the go. I’ve seen a couple of talks/blog posts that seem to add to this sort discussion, so I have a rough idea of what it’s about.

The idea is that if you and someone you take to be an epistemic peer disagree, then you should give their opinion equal weight. What “equal weight” means is something I’m not going to explore. But I’m worried that the notion of an “epistemic peer” makes EW a trivial claim. When do you decide if someone is an epistemic peer?

Here’s the idea: If Alice considers Bob an epistemic peer and they are both asked to report the outcome of a calculation, say “5+7”. Alice reports “12”, Bob reports “13”. Does Alice have to take Bob’s view seriously? Presumably, Alice is confident enough in her ability to do basic arithmetic that she doesn’t have to. But let’s say she does: what happens then? She checks her calculation and concludes that she was right and Bob has made an error.

Now let’s say instead of “5+7” Alice and Bob are asked to calculate “17*31”. Let’s say they disagree on the outcome. What happens now? They go and check their sums and presumably one will find a mistake. No Equal Weights going on here. Maybe mathematical claims aren’t the sort that EW is supposed to deal with?

So let’s say Alice and Bob are both asked to report where Audrey Hepburn was born. And let’s say Alice (correctly) reports “Ixelles, Belgium” while Bob reports “Narnia”. Is Alice required to take Bob’s view seriously. Whatever Alice’s prior attitude vis-à-vis Bob’s competence, the sheer craziness of his answer means that Alice isn’t required to still accept Bob as an epistemic peer? I guess the point I’m hand-waving towards here is that epistemic peerhood had better not be the sort of thing that is decided before the agent’s report their beliefs. If this is the case, then it seems like accepting someone as an epistemic peer after having seen their answer entails that you are willing to give their view equal weight. In this case it’s trivial.

It seems that Bob’s report of his belief is the most pertinent piece of evidence Alice could have about Bob’s potential epistemic peerhood. To rule that out from Alice’s decision to give Bob that status seems thoroughly bizarre.

And what about Alice’s position: what needs to be the case for Alice to consider taking Bob’s potential peerhood seriously? If Alice is totally convinced of the fact at issue, then nobody will count as a peer. Nothing could change her mind. So a prerequisite for Alice’s even considering Bob’s opinion is that she isn’t sure of the fact at stake. And again, this seems like saying that Alice is willing to take other opinions on board.

I wonder if, once I’ve actually looked at this stuff, I’ll come back and be embarrassed by how misguided these comments are…


Written by Seamus

June 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm

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