In the comedic narrative that is Life, the Universe and Everything (which is not a reference, at this time to the book by Douglas Adams), sometimes two things feed into each other. Today’s example is the topic of reasonable disagreement; something the internet tries to force me to engage in far too much.
It seems trivial to say that we (seem to) reasonably disagree on a lot of issues. We often disagree with acquaintances on matters of politicks and religion, monetary policy and pop cultural phenomena. I know people whose opinion I respect who are on the Right, and we seem to be able to agree to disagree on matters to do with, say, whether Rodney Hide is a disingenuous fool (although secretly one of us thinks that we’re right (or mostly right) whilst the other is dead wrong). Philosophers of Religion, in particular, disagree all the time when it comes to whether or not god (or the gods) exist, and, ontologically speaking, either the atheist or the theist philosopher is going to be in the right. Either the gods exist, or they don’t, even if it turns out that we have no good arguments for such propositions.
Now, some reasonable disagreement occurs because we often have different evidence and start out from different assumptions, and thus we reason, it seems rationally, to different conclusions. For example, If one detective only has the fingerprint evidence for some crime, evidence that points towards Bob the Builder committing the crime, and the other detective only has the eye-witness testimony, evidence that indicates Postman Pat as the culprit, then they should come to very different conclusions as to who committed the crime.
However, if the detectives were to share their evidence and talk through how it should be weighted (so as to come to a common starting point for their reasoning based upon the evidence), presumably they should both reason to the same conclusion. The idea, in its simplest form, is that, given the same evidence, rational agents should come to the same conclusions (this is called the Uniqueness Thesis or TUT: TUT: For any total body of evidence, there is exactly one reasonable attitude to take towards some proposition)1. If the detectives fully disclose and share all of their evidence, then, if they are rational, then they should come to complete agreement as to who stole the Fat Controller’s blood diamonds.
Certain philosophers think that it isn’t possible for there to be reasonable disagreement between two rational aegents after full disclosure. No matter where you start your reasoning from, as long as you share all of your evidence, then there is one and only one justified position for you to take. To disagree in such circumstances is to act irrationally.
Now, this seems like a problem, because people, like philosophers (who are people too), do seem to reasonably disagree on a lot of matters, like the existence of the gods, whether the concepts mentioned in our best theories in the Sciences actually exist and whether there is any merit to interpreting the works of Nietzsche as philosophy. In the Philosophy of Religion, for example, atheist philosophers often know all the theistic arguments for the existence of god (or the gods) and know that the theists know and have replied to the atheistic arguments and yet these same philosophers still seem to engage in reasonable disagreement on the subject of the existence of some divine agent.
I’ve been asked by a colleague in my Department2 whether there is reasonable disagreement thesis when it comes to conspiracy theories. Now, on one level, I’m not sure that it does; I don’t think we can point to many, if any, reasonable disagreements about the plausibility of certain conspiracy theories. Whilst there is disagreement between, for example, those who hold that 9/11 was an Inside Job and those who claim it was an Outside Job, there isn’t, as far as I can see, people who go “I respect your viewpoint; let’s just agree to disagree, eh?”3
Now, there might be a class of people who do not have a decided opinion on such matters as to whether 9/11 was an Inside or Outside job, and such people, when they hear the rival arguments, might say “I don’t know what to believe about this; those people seem to disagree so I’ll suspend judgement on the matter for the time being.” What, we might ask, are these people actually doing? Are they being rational?
Presumably, if they don’t know the epistemic status of the authorities in disagreement, then they are being rational. If you see two strangers disagreeing and you know nothing about the thing they are disagreeing over, then it would be irrational to side with either party to the debate. However, if you are in the position to judge who is a legitimate authority, presumably you could gauge who holds the burden of proof and decide accordingly.
Still, there might be reasonable disagreement between philosophers about the rationality of conspiracy theories. Brian L. Keeley thinks that, by and large, we are justified in dismissing conspiracy theories out of hand and Charles Pigden thinks such a dismissal is unwarranted; they seem to know each other’s arguments and yet disagree (relatively)4 reasonably. Of course, given that I’m writing my thesis on the subject I think they are both right and in error, so what might I know?
I don’t really have an answer to any of this; I’m just ruminating in textual form to try and get some sense of the shape of reasonable disagreement with regards to conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorising. If I have any further thoughts, I’ll be sure to let you know.
- I’m not entirely convinced that TUT is true, but that is a matter for another time.↩
- I’m beginning to get a complex about capitalising “Department;” it sounds like I work for some amorphous arm of the government and not for a group of people who squabble like children at staff meetings. Then again, I suspect the members of amorphous arms of the government squabble like children at their meetings as well.↩
- There is, I suspect, some reasonable-esque disagreement in the “Inside Job” community; a lot of fellow travellers who agree that the American government committed the acts of September 11th, 2001, disagree as to how it was committed, but when such disagreements are highlighted they tend to fracture such groups as opposed to glossing over them; the disagreement is only reasonable, it seems, if people don’t talk through it.↩
- I also worry that I am a) over using parentheses and b) not using them correctly.↩