Peer Disagreement

Synopsis

Many intelligent people disagree about many important questions. This means that many intelligent people are wrong about many important questions, and it is not possible to tell if you are one of these people simply based on how confident you are. Looking at the arguments on both sides doesn’t address the problem, because everyone claims to do that, and reaches different conclusions. Nor does attempting to explain how disagreement is consistent with your worldview address the problem, as it begs the question of how you know that your worldview is correct. I therefore conclude that in the absence of expert consensus on a given question, we should suspend any firm judgement on the matter.

Introduction

Is abortion morally wrong? Is fiscal stimulus effective at reviving an economy? Is there a God? What is the best type of diet to lose weight? Is the brain a computer? Are men and women hardwired to be different? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is intelligent life common in the universe? Is gun control effective at reducing violence? Will mankind will face extinction in the near future?

These questions span many different topics. Some are scientific, some are political, and others are philosophical. Nonetheless, they do have one important property in common: many (perhaps most) of those who have a strong opinions about these questions are wrong. Regardless of what the actual answer is, there is so much disagreement about these sorts of questions and so many mutually-incompatible views that, whichever position is actually the correct one, most people’s views are false. This means that right now, many ethicists are wrong about abortion. Many economists are wrong about fiscal stimuluses. Many philosophers are wrong about whether there is a God.

Main Argument

Everything I have said thus far is really quite obvious and (aside from minor quibbles about specific choice of examples, etc), fairly uncontroversial. What, then, is the big deal? The big deal, in my view, comes the from conclusion that, I think, we should draw from these facts. Allow me present my main argument in the form of a syllogism.

  1. If two or more people hold incompatible views on any matter that is not purely subjective (e.g. favourite dessert), then at least some of those people must be wrong
  2. Many intelligent people hold incompatible views on many important questions, despite being well informed and strongly convinced they are right
  3. Therefore, many intelligent people hold incorrect beliefs despite being well informed on the subject, and being convinced that they are right
  4. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for intelligent, thoughtful, intellectually honest, well-informed people, to be strongly convinced about the correctness of their position, whilst nonetheless being completely wrong
  5. Therefore, it is possible (and given the enormous extent of disagreement, I would say likely) that you, as an intelligent and informed person, are mistaken about at least some of the core beliefs that you consider to be very important and (likely) hold with a high degree of confidence

Looking at the Evidence won’t Help

Perhaps you might imagine that you could not possibly be one such person, because the answer seems to clear and logical in your head. After all, you have looked at the arguments and evidence on both sides, and come to a reasoned, rational conclusion. What, then, is the problem with feeling confident in your opinion, when clearly the facts and evidence support it? The problem lies in the fact that we can never, as finite, fallible human beings, have access to the actual facts, evidence, and arguments in their pure, objective, unadulterated form. All we ever can access are our perceptions and interpretations of the evidence and arguments – how persuasive they seem to us. And we know, from the fact of widespread disagreement, that our sense of the persuasiveness or reasonableness of such evidence and arguments is, in general, quite unreliable.

Whatever argument you have heard about abortion, whatever evidence you have seen about fiscal stimuluses, whatever religious experiences you may have had, you can be essentially assured that there exist many other equally intelligent people as yourself who have heard the same arguments, seen the same evidence, and had similar experiences, but who do not find them to be a persuasive reason to believe in your position. This is a fact that we all need to be able to deal with.

Interchanging Perspectives with Another

Of course, our own beliefs will always feel more ‘real’ to us than those of others, because as finite human beings were are limited by our own nature as embodied, subjective beings. We have direct access to our own beliefs and reasons for those beliefs in a way we can never have for those of others. But how does that justify us in thinking that our beliefs are actually, objectively, more likely to be true? It might sound like I am arguing for some form of relativism, but I am not. In fact, I think it is by ignoring the problem of disagreement that we head towards relativism, as doing so leads to the situation in which whether a particular proposition should be believed or not is relative to which person’s methods of reasoning one chooses to use in analysing the arguments. Everyone thinks they are right and those who disagree with them are wrong, but if it were possible to switch perspectives and use one’s opponents methods of thinking and analysing arguments,  then you would conclude the exact opposite. A model of knowledge that makes justificatory claims so variable and mind-dependent is, in my view, far more deserving of the name ‘relativism’ than the position I am advocating.

Explaining Disagreement from your Worldview

It might be tempting to introspect about one’s worldview, and attempt to find reasons as to why, given your worldview, many other intelligent people could be wrong about such important questions. For example, the atheist dismisses intelligent Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the grounds that humans have evolved a sense of spirituality, and tend to attribute anthropomorphic characteristics to inanimate objects in an attempt to derive a sense of comfort and meaning in an otherwise uncaring universe. The Christian, on the other hand, dismisses intelligent atheists on the grounds that, whatever evidence is presented for God’s existence, many will still choose not to believe because of the stubbornness of their hearts and their refusal to submit their will to God.

The problem with arguments like this is that they do not allow us to distinguish which state of the world actually prevails. Both the Atheist and the Christian expect, given their worldviews, to see religious disagreement among intelligent people, so whoever is right we expect to see the same thing (at least in this respect). We then arrive back at the same question we started with: given such disagreement, who is more likely to be correct? Arguments that attempt merely to explain disagreement within the framework of a particular belief system thus do not actually address the problem of disagreement at all. Unless a particular viewpoint is actually inconsistent with the existence of peer disagreement (I know of none that are), then all worldviews are capable of constructing such justifications. None of them, however, can address the real question: given the extent of peer disagreement, how do you know that you are not one of the many who are mistaken?

Conclusion

To be clear, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as truth, or that we can never know what it is. There are plenty of issues on which there does exist a considerable degree of expert agreement. Many questions in science are of this sort, as are at least some questions in ethics, politics, and economics. What I am trying to argue is that, if there exists widespread disagreement among equally informed and rational people, then, in general, this means that there exists insufficient evidence to answer the question, and thus we should withhold judgement, or at the very least, substantially lower our confidence that we are correct. Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

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4 thoughts on “Peer Disagreement

  1. Very well written. I like your identity – ‘The Godless Theist’. I agree with your statements, except having been on both sides of the fence, I know that there is no God.

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  2. Well said, but not necessarily useful. These are all issues on which policy needs to be determined, so withholding judgement is not an option. Taking provisional action at the same time as designing a way to get a better answer would be ideal, but we’re still going to argue about what that action should be, and whoever sounds more certain is likely to win.

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  3. Pingback: The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto | The Godless Theist

  4. I read this as a person of faith with a progressive outlook, which to me means I try to be as agnostic as possible about religious beliefs. So I deliberately avoid an adversarial stance, Instead I bring the stance of attentive listening, not of deductive logic.
    James paper makes explicit what is already readily apparent. My major reaction is that we will make more progress to determining true and false about conflicting beliefs if we attend more to what these beliefs mean to a person, subjectively, rather than attempting a fruitless objectivity.
    I acknowledge that AJRAE is right – policy formation in various realms demands we make some assumptions in areas where our knowledge is limited and we have differences. The consensus model of decision making in the Uniting Church has amazing utility in this regard. It is about ensuring all minority voices are heard and considered while a majority view determines the outcome.

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