Last one of the year, and I begin with a bit of a bittersweet note. Last year’s puzzle about the river of Coke, due to Storrs McCall, came back to me the other day as I was informed by my mother that Professor McCall had died recently. He was 91. Not a bad run. So I can in retrospect thank him again for a small but vital bit of my education — and a very fun puzzle!
Last time, I asked about Patrick Grim’s “incomplete universe” and the paradoxes surrounding “all truths.” I received no answers, but here’s a further thought, related to my allusion to worries about continuity. Does it matter that in most physics — e.g., “electric field has strength E at position r” — there would be a continuum of truths, one for each value of E and r in a continuous range? Yet these are not stateable in a natural language, since a natural language has a countable infinity of sentences. So there’s an incompleteness in that sense as well. Could the two be parallel, a limitation of language rather than the world?
This is where the notion of “set” does a lot of work. Grim has explored the idea that it doesn’t matter what “set” amounts to, that more “ontological rather than semantic” considerations are at play. I have yet to evaluate these to my satisfaction but this is the direction I would go. I also point out that there is some interesting discussion of related matters in Graham Priest’s Beyond the Limits of Thought. Those of you who think Priest is a charlatan should read this interesting and very challenging book — it may refine your views! Limits of thought connect to limits of inquiry, and that’s the subject for this month.
This puzzle comes directly from the academic literature. I wouldn’t ordinarily be so bold as to introduce something from scholarly work without a bit of time passing, but the topic is in fact timely. At the recent CFIC conference, many of us participated in a town hall discussion about how to handle possibly offensive topics, topics that might affect marginalized groups or individuals, and such.
In the most recent issue of the journal Philosophy of Science there is an article entitled “How Dissent on Gender Bias in Academia Affects Science and Society: Learning from the Case of Climate Change Denial.” This article makes use of four jointly sufficient principles to determine what the authors call epistemically detrimental dissent. I quote verbatim and then analyze the criteria, as well as the idea as a whole — leaving you, the reader, to think through what I have said. There is no direct paradox or head scratcher here other than via my first remark.
“Dissent from a hypothesis H is epistemically detrimental if each of the following obtains:
(1) The non-epistemic consequences of wrongly rejecting H are likely to be severe.
(2) The dissenting research that constitutes the objection violates established conventional standards.
(3) The dissenting research involves intolerance for producer risks at the expense of public risks.
(4) Producer risks and public risks fall largely on different parties.”
First, are the principles themselves meant hypothetically? This is no easy matter, as many positions — e.g., in meta-ethics — deny that norms or ethical “pronouncements” have truth values. Next, consider the question of self-applicability. Assume by hypothesis that item (1) is a correct (or true) principle, and that the principles are self-applicable. It seems that the principle itself then suggests that all inquiry is at risk as potentially all inquiry must at least pass by the “check” of the principle. Consequently, rejecting it is dangerous.
But then notice what we’ve done: We have now immunized at least to some degree the principle against all criticism. This seems implausible and a very weird thing to do. It sounds a lot like the recent attempts to pass legislation in parts of the U.S. that would be somehow immune to court review. A way out involves looking at the remaining principles. Perhaps they can be the way to allow dissent on the principles.
Item (2) seems to do a lot of work in the article’s example and is actually where I have the most agreement with the principle and yet am also most ambivalent about its use. In the terms I would prefer, this is the clause that basically, when spelled out, means that standards for inquiry must be respected. This seems innocuous enough, and I do think that the notion of pseudoscience is a useful category to at least summarize certain forms of sham or bogus inquiry.
But like our critics, I do have trouble with the boundary between bogus inquiry and simply bad inquiry. It has been suggested that this is only a matter of motivation and hence is irrelevant. I do not know how to settle this debate. However, it does appear to affect the use of the principle if one is to “ban” research with it.
Why? Because badness comes in degrees. Forgetting to label one axis in one graph in a 50-page article full of graphs is bad inquiry. But it is much different from investigating how Noah ventilated the Ark or how the Egyptians got help in building the pyramids from time travelling lizard people from Earth’s distant past or how a banged-around solution of sugar water can cure AIDS or autism. So what level of “violation” introduces enough epistemic risk to indicate banning is necessary?
Item (2) also has another problem, and one that I wrestle with constantly, as a person who works at the intersection of several distinct fields and has academic training and interest in many others. This is the question of cross-disciplinary standards. I firmly believe there are epistemological, metaphysical, semantic, logical, ethical, and perhaps even aesthetic standards that apply regardless of field of inquiry.
However, I also believe that it is nosy for outsiders to apply their standards to other areas. Yet I also think, there and in the more general case we started with, that descriptive ethical relativism can, even if the principles are still genuine, provoke us to rethink and so on, which is all to the good, I think. Furthermore, what is an outsider? What counts as the relevant disciplinary boundary that applies? This is actually a specific case of a more vexing problem.
Oftentimes people say that we should listen to what a member of a group says about a topic because an outsider cannot know what they have been through, and so on. There is a lot of ethical sense to this, which I do not want to deny. Yet, if we are going to then also forbid or discourage criticism of beliefs and practices relative to the topic “from the outside” this runs into a grave problem: What counts as the appropriate group and what determines membership in it? By hypothesis, I would argue there is always going to be one superordinate group that applies — e.g., “persons”, or something like it. For the moment, the narrower group “humans” also applies.
“But Keith, I mean a narrower group.”
“Yes, I know you do, but that’s the point.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, by piling enough categories together and taking their intersection, I can create a group of 1 that you belong to, and then you’re immune to criticism.”
The way out that I would adopt is to not start down that slippery slope at all. A late-1990s article on epistemic charity is interesting here. The gist is that by refusing to criticize one is in fact not treating the “other” as a human being, by effectively infantilizing them (or worse). The author, historian of science Meera Nanda, appeals to a common humanity, which I agree exists. Denying this seems to amount to the very racism (sexism, etc.) that people rightly abhor. It does not follow from this that any form of criticism is thereby permitted.
Also, the principle is restricted to criticism — which is, as we have seen, a difficult category to delineate. In practice, what happens sometimes is that there is an infinite regress of “I (don’t) accept that” potentially here. Those of you who know about my friend Raven and the “right to exit” may see where that comes from in this context.
Item (3) is harder to understand and in the interest of making the column manageable I will skip analyzing it. Item (4) runs into some of the same problems as item (2), namely individuation conditions for groups. Note that my old hobby horse, metaphysics, is in play here: One could even question whether there are social groups at all. “Societies” were denied (infamously) by Margaret Thatcher.
I think this is severely wrongheaded, but it is not immediately obvious how to correct it. There is also the danger that one can escape item (4) by simply saying that the party is again “humanity,” for example. Or, if we want to game the rule the other way around, we can again draw a group down into one of a single member.
I will now leave you to think about these ideas, and next time I will apply them more directly to CFIC’s recent meta-discussions.