While pondering on the way I justify disbelief in certain kinds of eye-witness testimonies, it became quite clear to me that a parallel, or an analogy, could be drawn between such disbelief and one of my skeptical epistemological theses. This essay is the result of me working it out.
Testimonies of direct contact with supernatural or paranormal events should not be trusted. That is for three reasons, first, the events they purport to evince are in themselves highly unlikely. The former kind of event, the supernatural, violates things we confidently hold to be true based on past observations, such as the conservation of energy and the causal closure of the physical universe, and the latter kind, the paranormal, would make it likely for independent confirmations (say, of Bigfoot’s existence) to exist, and they don’t. Second, testimonies of such kind frequently contradict each other – UFOs and aliens are seen to hold different visual properties and exhibit different types of behavior (e.g. some aliens are ill-intended, whereas others aren’t) , and spiritual contacts are allegedly made with divinities of different religions, i.e. with divinities with different properties and behavior-patterns, and therefore mutually exclusive. Therefore, most of the testimonies are necessarily at least partially false, and some wholly false. Third, our faculties of perception and memory are notoriously faulty and prone to suggestion, editing, hallucination, and so forth.
Summing up, such testimonies (which I will henceforth refer to as special testimonies) suggest very implausible events, and we have two kinds of reasons to think not-so-implausible that any such testimony is misleading, because they are known to be often so: testimonies frequently contradict each other and are frequently generated by unreliable methods (for example, through hallucination or edited memory). The best explanation for the testimony, thus, is that the not-so-implausible misleading perception happened – leading to a misleading testimony -, rather than that the implausible event happened. Therefore, a special testimony alone does not provide epistemic justification for believing the supernatural or paranormal event it purports to evince.
Now, on to the analogy: just as I questioned the reliability of special testimonies by themselves, unaided by significant external verification, I will proceed to question the reliability of an individual’s reasoning by itself, unaided by significant external verification, in certain special situations. Before anything else, by an individual’s reasoning I mean the act of collecting relevant evidence and arguments, added to their evaluation by the individual, providing justification for holding a certain belief about, say, a philosophical or a political position.
I also want to clarify what those aforementioned special situations are. These are scenarios in which a large amount of what I will call competent individuals – the more a given person is acquainted with the debate in question, and the more intellectually honest and skillful this person has proved to be, the more competent that person is -, largely believe that P is the case, and one individual’s reasoning R entails that ~P. (It may or may not be the case that there is also a large amount of competent individuals who believe that ~P, either way my point will stand. Large disagreement whether between competent individuals will always entail large disagreement with any given reasoning R.) What are, then, the reason for distrusting an individual’s reasoning in such special scenarios?
First, the belief that ~P, justified by the reasoning R, entails that a large amount of competent individuals got it at least significantly wrong and yet R got it right for the right reasons. This means that the individual in question performed reasoning of a better quality than a large amount of competent individuals, and I take this to be implausible. There are a few cases in which this happens, but it is highly unlikely that in any given scenario this is the case.
Second, individual’s reasonings frequently contradict each other – e.g. Oskar Lange greatly disagreed with Friedrich Hayek, Noam Chomsky with Amartya Sen, David Lewis with Peter van Inwagen. Therefore, most reasonings are necessarily at least partially misleading, and some wholly misleading. Third, our faculties of evidence-collecting and evaluating, as well as our faculties or argument-collecting and evaluating, are notoriously faulty and prone to motivated reasoning, selective attention, and all sorts of biases (e.g. belief bias, framing effect, path-dependence of belief), as well as remarkably open to fallacious or confused reasoning – something detectable even in the thinking of greatly sophisticated thinkers such as Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Russell, and Lewis – abstract thought is a difficult enterprise indeed (the same goes for all classes of political thinking – collecting reliable evidence and evaluating them correctly is very, very difficult). This makes it not-so-implausible that any given reasoning is misleading, or faulty.
Summing up, the reasoning R which implies ~P , when many competent persons are of the opinion that P (regardless of many others being of the opinion that ~P), suggests an implausible event – that the individual performed reasoning of a better quality than the many competent opponents. We also have two kinds of reasons to think not-so-implausible that R is misleading, because reasonings are known to be often so: reasonings frequently contradict each other, and frequently are generated by unreliable methods (such as a biased collection or evaluation of the evidence, or a faulty judgement of the arguments), meaning they are probably wrong or at least right for the wrong reasons (which doesn’t justify belief). The best explanation for R, then, is that it was generated by a misleading collection and evaluation of both evidence and argument, rather than that the other competent persons committed such mistakes while R didn’t.
Therefore, it follows that an individual’s reasoning alone does not provide epistemic justification for believing that P. My own thesis is that one can be epistemically (as opposed to pragmatically) justified to believe that P (or not ~P) iff both his reasoning and most other competent people’s reasonings have entailed P for a long time. (This temporal proviso is to avoid fads, such as everybody loving Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, or Kripke.) This, of course, entails in large-scale suspension of belief (or, at least, of the stronger kinds of belief – pragmatic, provisional, or lightly-held beliefs are still in the game). I shall finish with the words of Peter van Inwagen:
In what sense can the evidence you have adduced support or justify your belief when there are many authorities as competent as you who regard this evidence as unconvincing? (…) If evidence is evidence in the courtroom or laboratory sense (photographs, transcripts of sworn statements, the pronouncements of expert witnesses, records of meter readings – even arguments, provided that an argument is understood as simply a publicly available piece of text, and that anyone who has read and understood the appropriate piece of text thereby has the evidence that the argument is said to constitute), then the evidence pretty clearly does not support our philosophical and political beliefs. (Is It Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence?)
These sorts of considerations are what made many people, in the last few decades, dedicate themselves to the rationality of disagreement, which originated the field of social epistemology. I find it amusing that I reached many of the same conclusions, with similar arguments, merely by observing a wide variety of economic, philosophical, sociological, and political doctrines. It beats me how it (seemingly) took so long before people started worrying about how nobody ever agrees on anything in these subjects, and what implications this fact may have for the rationality of belief.