Sunday, August 14, 2011

Intellectual Peers and Epistemic Peers

Paul M. has a nice post on a particular application of thoughts about epistemic peer disagreement. I'm in broad agreement with the basic thrust of the post; I've argued against the position he calls ST myself a number of times. (I am inclined to think that NDT is ultimately not coherent given standard characterizations of what is meant by 'epistemic peer', but it's much less common to meet it in the wild, anyway -- most people have more moderate views.) I do think, however, that the post suffers from not looking more closely at what 'epistemic peer' means in this context, and this does have some ramifications for the argument given. To say that someone is an epistemic peer in a given context is to say that this person has no significant disadvantages or advantages with regard to background, ability, or external assistance for that context. Practically every serious discussion of the subject requires this: no argument can be made about epistemic peers and what follows from their disagreement if, for instance, we merely mean that two people arguing over a calculation are more or less generally equal in background and overall ability if it also turns out that one person has devoted hours more to the calculation, or has a greater proficiency in this particular kind of calculation, or has a calculator.

It also has the effect of complicating any discussion of practical applications. If you're just positing an abstract situation for the purpose of better understanding knowledge, or disagreement, or some such, things are easy: you just posit that there are two or more people, none of which have any relevant epistemic advantages over the others. In real life, however, there is good reason to think that one can never know with sufficient precision whether anyone is an epistemic peer. In real life, of course, when we think of peers, we think of what we might call intellectual peers -- people who have, in general, roughly the same ability as averaged out over a number of things and very broadly speaking the same kind of educational background. But this is not precise enough to say much about whether these intellectual peers are epistemic peers in any particular case. And in practice it doesn't matter -- we don't have to bother with epistemic peers. Indeed, even whether someone is an intellectual peer is not hugely important. Sally may be the world's most brilliant mathematician, and John merely a competent one, but there will be plenty of circumstances where John will be competent enough to check Sally's work, disagree with her on a mathematical issue and be right, or catch Sally out in a mistake. It reminds me of a philosophy professor I know who once told a rather condescending story about a discussion with his teenage daughter on critical thinking, in which his daughter put forward some reasonably clever arguments and the philosophy professor gave some very mediocre answers to them, answers that did not really do justice to the issues raised by the daughter's arguments. When this was pointed out, he got into something of a huff and pointed out that he was a professor of philosophy who had studied analogous issues for some time and his daughter was merely a teenager. Now, it is true that in general teenagers are not the intellectual equals of tenured professors. But the moral to be taken from the story, besides the point that any parent, regardless of intelligence and education, who thinks they will always have the better argument in a discussion with their teenager is making a truly stupid assumption, is that good arguments are good arguments regardless of who makes them. Setting aside the fact that the stupidest teenager can have a good day in an argument, and the cleverest professor a bad day (anyone can stumble onto something good, and anyone can just plain stumble), in some contexts even the stupidest teenager can be in a better position to know what they are talking about than even the cleverest professor. Set your finest college professors in the same room with a very irrational pre-teen and ask them which of the actors you will show them is the more accurate Justin Beiber impersonator, and you will see that epistemic peers for a given kind of problem need not be intellectual peers in general. In My Cousin Vinny, Mona Lisa Vito is not an intellectual peer of George Wilbur; at the very least, he is certainly better-educated than she is, and there's no implication in the movie that his intellectual abilities are inferior to hers. But in the area of general automotive knowledge, she may well be his epistemic superior, because her father was a mechanic, and his father was a mechanic, and her three brothers are mechanics, and four uncles on her father's side are mechanics, and she's worked in her father's garage, and she can tell the make and model of a car by looking at what tire tracks imply about positraction.

Intellectual peerage in other words is not epistemic peerage; it states something about one's general-purpose intellectual competence, not one's competence for drawing particular kinds of conclusion with particular kinds of evidence, and thus is mostly useful just for identifying which people are equally likely to be competent over a wide range of issues. It's an important distinction, although easy to overlook; much of the early discussion of epistemic peer skepticism was vitiated by a failure to distinguish intellectual peerage (which is broad and has no implications for particular topics because it, so to speak, is a form of assessment-by-average -- this person is my peer because in general or on balance we share backgrounds and intellectual dispositions) from epistemic peerage (which has to be defined in terms the ability and background people have for drawing conclusions in any particular context -- this person is my epistemic peer because we share the same background and ability for drawing a general kind of conclusion from the same evidence). Two people with equally good eyes and equally good observational skills looking from equally good vantage points without any advantages over the other with respect to relevant tools are epistemic peers on the question of who crossed the finish line first, even if one is for most things clearly smarter, better informed, and more thoughtful. Two intellectual peers, with the same basic education and intelligence, might not be epistemic peers in judging the significance of a bit of evidence in their field if one is highly biased with a bias that distorts precisely this sort of judgment, or if one has put considerably more effort into this particular problem, or if one has an educational gap at just the right point.

Thus (1) in practice we use intellectual peerage rather than epistemic peerage, and the two are not the same; (2) we can practically identify intellectual peers, but this has very little in the way of epistemic consequences for any particular context; and (3) identifying real epistemic peers requires a degree of precision we rarely if ever have in practice. The upshot of this is that any discussion of epistemic peers is at an abstract and hypothetical level; it can be useful in certain circumstances at precisely this level (e.g., in better understanding the nature of inquiry or how knowledge works under conditions of disagreement). It follows from this, however, that we can't use the disagreement over ST as an argument against it. Certainly intellectual peers disagree over it. But the claim is not about intellectual peers but about epistemic peers: and among intellectual peers some can be in a better position to know something. Some will have a better acquaintance with the arguments; some will better understand the arguments made; some will have a more extensive relevant background; some will be making perfectly ordinary mistakes that anyone in their position could make but that not all of them are guaranteed to make; some will have biases sufficiently strong to distort evaluations, creating unnecessary doubt or imprudent confidence, and so forth. We can posit as a hypothetical that if epistemic peers disagree over ST, the conjunction of this with ST is defeating for ST. But hypotheticals of this sort don't refute or defeat anything. Similar problems arise both with the position Paul designates as CAST, as formulated, and with his argument against it.


  1. Hi Brandon, 

    Thamnks for the comments. I'd ask how my def. of epistemic peer in my opening paragraph doesn't accord with what you're putting forth here? Did you think that understanding was that of intellectual peer?

    I'd also say that my post arose in the context of dialog where I saw a couple Catholic's (PhD students) using this argument. So what they said on the matter informed my post. It seems their criticism of protestants falls by your distinction. For on your distinction, it seems pretty hard to say all prots are epistemic peers, and so hard to say that the fact they disagree with their prot friends givens them reason to be skeptical of their beliefs. So it seemed to me they were using a wide net to put epistemic peers into.

    I guess my general point is that *if* a prot has an epistemic peer who disagrees with him, then this doesn't necessarily defeat his beliefs, for *if it did* then it would seem to as well for Catholics, since, per their argument, *if* they had an epistemic peer who disagreed with them, this would defeat their belief. If not, then it seems something like the DP premise at the bottom of my post would have to be true for Catholics, or anothe premise to the effect that Catholics just don't have epistemic peers.


  2. branemrys5:51 PM

    Hi, Paul,

    Your definition of epistemic peer seems fine; your arguments on the basis of it, however, give odd results if we apply it strictly in the contexts of those arguments, and look very much like they are not following the definition strictly. (They make more sense with intellectual peers than epistemic peers. To identify just one point, one of the things at issue in the case is whether Catholics have the assistance of a high-reliability (in this case, infallible) assistance lacking to Protestants, even if in other ways they are epistemic peers; which is a bit like a situation in which we don't know whether, of two people who are otherwise peers and who are arguing over a math problem, one of the two has a calculator. This more complex problem would require considering at least two hypotheticals, one with and one without the calculator, in which, ex hypothesi, they'd be epistemic peers in one case and not epistemic peers in another, at least not in any sense relevant to the argument.)

    I think you are right that this is also true of the Catholic attempt to run an epistemic-peers based argument involving CAST or anything analogous. It just doesn't seem to be a fertile ground for this particular type of discussion, in any direction. Although perhaps there are side questions that would be interesting (e.g., given the Catholic view of the Magisterium, is it in fact consistent for a Catholic to think that there actually are non-Catholic epistemic peers on matters of faith and morals? -- which is related to the question, can a Protestant  of a certain type consistently regard anyone who doesn't recognize Scripture as infallible as an epistemic peer? In both cases part of what is at issue is a device (the Magisterium, Scripture) that necessarily changes one's ability to evaluate certain kinds of evidence for certain topics.)

    I think you are right in your last paragraph. If a Protestant has an epistemic peer who disagrees with him, all that he's committed to is accepting that, on that subject, mistakes can be made by people with his background and ability.* It wouldn't necessarily follow that the Protestant actually has any reason to think that he himself has made such a mistake, only that one of the two people in the scenario did.  The Catholic hypothetical is trickier; since Catholics posit an in-principle accessible authority in this case that (for at least practical purposes) is epistemically superior to all parties, this authority significantly overrides any considerations of disagreement among epistemic peers, and this would have to be taken into account. But I suspect that doing so, while making for a more complicated disjunction (since it would have to get into second-order issues about disagreements among epistemic peers over what counts as epistemically superior, peer, or inferior, which is really what is at issue here), wouldn't change your overall point.

    *(Since everyone is on some very minimal assumptions his own epistemic peer, disagreement between epistemic peers is essentially equivalent to the possibility of coming to a different answer oneself, assuming that your background and abilities are constant and that nothing else is relevant, and thus the actual disagreement of epistemic peers does nothing more than confirm that people at this level of epistemic peerage either can err or are simply unable to determine the answer with perfect certainty. Since most people recognize at least the possibility of making a mistake, talk of epistemic peers doesn't add anything more than a different approach to the question of how one handles the possibility of being mistaken.)

  3. <span>Thanks, that was helpful. I guess I'd say that my argument assumed the argument the Catholic was making. He apparently thought epistemic perrage was much more common than you seen to think—so much so that virtually all protestants were stacked with epistemic peers at each level they were at (e.g., Joe layman, intelligent layman, seminary sudent, academic, etc). Given *that* understanding of the ubiquity of E-peers, the argument was easy to mirror back at them. Given your view, one worry is whether there are any epistemic peers. Or, if there are, how common it is. If there are any, I'm also not sure they don't disagree over ST. </span>


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