The Flimflam 2k Turbo

Classically, Epistemology was all about individuals. Social Epistemology expands the notion of ‘a knower’ to groups; in the same way that individuals can have beliefs about the world so can groups, or so the Social Epistemologist will claim. There is some intutive merit to the proposal that groups know things; the Abraxcus Motor Corporation knows that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is a dangerously unsafe vehicle attributes to the group entity ‘the Abraxcus Motor Corporation’ the belief that ‘the Flimflam 2k Turbo is a dangerously unsafe vehicle.’ Whilst we might well claim that all this means is that individual engineers at the Abraxcus Motor Corporation hold the belief that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is dangerous it could also mean that, as a set, the engineers know that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is dangerous, which is to say that no one individual engineer has a justified belief that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is dangerous but, as a group, the set of engineers know this. This is because the knowledge that the vehicle is unsafe may not belong to anyone individual; I may know that the tires on the vehicle are not as good as the Woowoo 1T when driving on a wet surface but, due to my specialisation, I’m not aware just how bad the driving lock is, or that the brakes have a tangible delay. As an individual my knowledge about the Flimflam 2k Turbo indicates that it could be safer; as a member of the group of engineers at the Abraxcus Motor Corporation we know that it is unsafe.

The belief(s) of my hypothetical set of engineers could be construed as being summative or joint. A summative approach to group beliefs claims that the sum of the beliefs of the individuals within the group gives rise to the beliefs of the group as a whole. This, however, is problematic. Aside from trivial beliefs (the engineers, as individuals, at Abraxcus all believe that the sky is blue but we don’t think that this is a particular belief of the engineers as a group) we get into trouble with contrasting beliefs by individuals within the group. The person responsible for building the facia of the Flimflam 2k Turbo thinks that the vehicle is safe, as well as the person who designed the interior fittings. Indeed, it may turn out that a majority of the engineers think, individually, that the vehicle is safe but that, when their beliefs are taken together, believe as a group that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is danerously unsafe. This suggests that the account of group belief needs to be joint, not summative; what counts as a group belief is indicated by how the group as a whole, not individually, would act.

Of course, we tend to interact with individuals; when the class action suit against the Abraxcus Motor Corporation comes to trial it is not the group ‘engineers’ that takes the stand but rather individuals from that group. Individuals within the group can express beliefs of the group because individuals within the group will believe that the beliefs of the group they belong to are justified in the right way. Individuals can pass the (epistemic) buck to the group because the joint practices of the individuals within the group are sufficient to make the group beliefs justified. For example, I have not reviewed every piece of evidence for and against the Conspiracy Theory that claims that the September 11th attacks of 2001 were orchestrated by the Government of the United States of America. However, I know[1] that the conspiracy theory is false because I trust the other individuals in my group of skeptics; I believe that our group has a justified belief that 9/11 was not an inside job and so I pass the (epistemic) buck on to my fellow members.

Social beliefs or group beliefs are more common and more important than they have, traditionally, been thought to be. Conspiracy Theories, I contend, exist primarily as group beliefs about the world (and I contend this, I think, somewhat contentiously) and our belief for or against them relies to a large extend on the acceptance of testimony of others within our respective group. Such a reliance on testimony is an example of passing the (epistemic) buck; I believe the beliefs of my group are justified. This doesn’t make such beliefs knowledge necessarily; I (and the group to which I belong) might well hold a belief for all the right epistemic reasons without it actually being true. That is a kettle of fish for another time, however[2].

1. I’m wary of terms such as ‘know;’ what I mean here is that I have a justified belief which might well be true, but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to be justified. However, this is contentious and I shan’t push it at this current time.

2. I wonder how many promises of ‘I’ll deal with this another time’ I have made and never delivered on in re this blog. A great many, I suspect. 

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.