Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The contingency problem

I've always thought about the contingency of my beliefs. Would I believe the things I do had I been raised differently or some other life circumstance had turned out differently? Would I deny my current beliefs? I think thinking about the contingency of one's epistemic status is a valuable exercise. It undermines the epistemic hubris from which many of us think somehow we have privileged epistemic access (whether be it from natural intellectual endowments or cultural or ethnic centricity etc) that is so common today and I think, contributes to a unbelievable amount of evil in the world.

This is a debate from Adam Elga, Joshua Schecter, and Roger White on this problem.

I liked the way that Roger White framed the problem. At times it seems that Elga is completely confused about what White and Schecter are talking about and seem to give examples that are irrelevant to the problem.

For example, Elga's proposed analogy of being hungry at some time and buying more food at the market when one is hungry does not seem to be wholly relevant to the contingency problem at all. One subjective state of not being hungry at time t does not conflict with one's status as being hungry at some later time t' however, one's belief that P is most certainly in epistemic conflict with one's belief that ~P had some contingent circumstance turned out differently in one's past upbringing. Elga seemed to have wholly missed the issue.

Elga's other example of someone telling another person who has done a math calculation that the result of said calculation is dependent on the color of the pad used in doing it is also seemingly irrelevant. Schecter I think hit it on the head when he mentioned that the correct response is not one of doubting or even lessening the degree of confidence in one's belief when that (absurd) response is given to one's belief that calculations are accurate on purely formulaic procedures and not to the color of paper used in that calculation. Rather it raises an appropriate Wittgensteinian uncertainty of the linguistic context or sanity of the person who raised the claim. If someone said that to me, I would not put into doubt my or even his belief about what determines the reliability of calculations but rather, whether or not he even understand the words "calculation" or "color" etc, as I do. His mental wellbeing is also up for questioning, not my beliefs of the reliability of calculation being independent of the color of the pad. In such a case, it may very well be, literally, crazy talk. In other words, my doubt in such cases are blocked from being epistemically transparent; it shifts its focus from judging my and his beliefs to one of a disorientation concerning the psycho-linguistic context in which I find myself. This shift in focus from that of transparency to opacity is I think wholly epistemically justified. (Wittgenstein's actual example (given in 1949) was that of someone who insists that he was "on the moon" yesterday.)

As you can see middle into the discussion when Elga raised his (objections?) points, Schecter and White seem visibly puzzled by them. Perhaps this is an instance of such epistemic opacity!

It is true that evidence can be conflicting and that contingent factors can determine whether we are given one set of evidence affirming some belief or some other set of relevant evidence denying them. I think Elga at one point makes this claim. But if P is true (when P is like most non philosophical claims which can be settled by science or other relatively definitive methods), evidence for P will more likely be found than evidence for ~P so that is not really an instance of contingency especially when you notice that the example isn't focused on people differing opinions and beliefs per se but the confidence that they hold their own belief to or their tendency to see their own views as somehow privileged.

Though I don't think the issue of contingency philosophically that interesting itself (though it does have interesting philosophical implications especially with virtue epistemology I would imagine), it is important that people contemplate that they may be wrong and should thus be open to alternative viewpoints and change their views if better supported beliefs are given. I also think that the problem does not affect philosophers's beliefs on philosophical topics as much as most people because philosophers tend to argue about issues which very often can be very well supported on a variety of perspectives at odds with each other. That's one reason why philosophy so difficult; there's plenty of evidence to support different perspectives roughly equally.

And many philosophers realize this and are comfortable in discussing with each other the issues and questioning how well supported their beliefs are and whether or not to change their own views, etc. Like Kripke's introduction to his Naming and Necessity famously said that his view expressed in the work is most certainly wrong like most views in the philosophy of language but he still believes it is the best supported view given so far. I think many philosophers have this open attitude to much of their philosophical beliefs viz a viz those of their colleagues. So I think philosophers, in general, already have this epistemic virtue of humility but that might not be so of most people who do not form, hold (sometimes in the face of overwhelming counter proof) and change their beliefs on support from evidence given them but on those irrelevant contingent factors.