Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Oppy on Disagreement (Part 3)

This post is part of a series on Graham Oppy's article "Disagreement". The article provides an overview of the epistemology of disagreement and considers its application to the philosophy of religion.

Part one covered the basic concepts and questions behind the epistemology of disagreement. The key question is: "What is the rational response to disagreement between doxastic peers?" Part two answered that question by considering several example cases.

As we saw in part two, once we move away from clear-cut hypothetical questions and towards more serious real life disagreements, the answer to the key question becomes elusive. In this part we consider a range of strategies -- identified in the literature -- for coping with real-life disagreements. We then see how these might apply to religious disagreements.

1. Coping with real disagreements
Oppy thinks that the following strategies for coping with real cases of disagreement have been identified in the literature on the epistemology of disagreement (some of these aren't "strategies", more like "observations" that lead to strategies):

  • Hard Line: According to this strategy, there are no cases of reasonable disagreement between peers. All actual cases of disagreement are traceable to cognitive or evidential differences between the parties to the disagreement. Thus, it might be reasonable to stick with the beliefs that you have.
  • Insight: According to this strategy, it is reasonable to stick with your beliefs if you have reason to think that you have a special insight into the subject matter of disagreement. The problem here is that insight is easy to claim and so appeal to it can seem like an irrational prejudice.
  • Extreme philosophical scepticism: According to this strategy, the fact of reasonable disagreement is itself a reason to withhold judgment on all potentially controversial topics. This may be one of the motivations for Pyrrhonian scepticism.
  • Moderate philosophical scepticism: Same as the above except the withholding of judgment is limited to cases of actual disagreement.
  • Merely Verbal Disagreement: We might be inclined to live with certain disagreements when they are "merely verbal". In other words, when they are matters of linguistic or conceptual bookkeeping as opposed to substantive disputes over what is or is not the case.
  • Inscrutability of Reasons: Often, the evidence and reasons on which we base our knowledge claims is inscrutable. This inscrutability might pull us in opposite directions. On the one hand, it might encourage us to be cautious about adjusting our beliefs in the face of disagreement. On the other hand, it might encourage us to be more open-minded.
  • Different Starting Points: Given that, in real life, we often arrive at our knowledge claims from different epistemic starting points (prior probabilities, worldviews, presuppositions etc.), we might think caution is preferable when confronted with disagreement. But, then again, maybe the different starting points should incline us toward open-mindedness.
  • Insufficient Agreement: It could be that a single instance of disagreement is actually reflective of a much broader range of disagreement. This would go back to the inscrutability of reasons and the different starting points.
  • Alethic Impurity: Beliefs and desires often become entangled in our knowledge claims. And given that desires are not thought to have truth values, this might force us to abandon cognitivism about certain disagreements. And this, in turn, might support a non-conciliationist attitude toward disagreement. The problem with this observation is that some disagreements clearly refer to cognitivist areas of inquiry.

As can be seen, there is no single correct response or strategy to take toward actual cases of disagreement. The unsurprising irony is that the epistemology of disagreement has managed to give rise to a whole new set of disagreements.

Oppy considers what this means for cases of religious disagreement.

2. Religious Disagreement
Oppy begins by pointing out that some of the "strategies" outlined above could not apply to religious disagreement. First off, the disagreement is clearly not just a question of linguistic or conceptual bookkeeping. Second, it contains some obviously cognitive components (e.g. "God exists" or "Jesus was resurrected from the dead").*

That said, most of the strategies do apply:

  • There are usually different epistemic starting points. For example, some religious believers appeal to the internal witness of the Holy Spirit as constituting their starting point. This can also be viewed as a unique type of "insight". This would be completely alien to a non-believer. 
  • There is often inscrutability of the reasons for belief or disbelief. Few could identify all the grounds on which they believe/disbelieve in certain religious doctrines.
  • Particular instances of disagreement are usually indicative of a much broader territory of disagreement.
  • Finally, it is interesting to note that people are usually aware of the disagreement before they adopt their own beliefs. Let's face it, unless we live exceptionally sheltered lives we know that one's stance toward religion is going to be a source of disagreement. 

That last observation is particularly suggestive. Of what? Of the fact that mere disagreement is not particularly significant when it comes to assessing the merits of the disputed beliefs. All areas of philosophy are highly contentious and contain many disagreements, this is not surprising. 

So for an epistemologist to make the second-order observation that there are cases of peer-disagreement in philosophy tells us nothing that the first-order dispute over reasons-for-belief did not. In other words -- and I take this to be Oppy's key point -- disagreement must be dealt with in the ordinary way: I'll state reasons, provide arguments and pinpoint evidence, and you'll do the same.

This is quite an interesting conclusion.


  1. John, I know this is lame of be to ask, but I am studying to get into grad school and I was wondering if there was any way you could send me Gwaizda's dissertation and Oppy's paper? I know that is lame of me, but I can not afford to pay out of pocket for these.

    thanks for your time,

  2. Yeah sure. Email me and I'll send them on to you. My email is available through my profile page.