Re: How You Do Not Tell the Truth

Date: Thu May 03 2001 - 11:18:13 MDT

I enjoyed your paper, Robin, and second Curt Adams' opinion that others (by
which I particularly mean, of course, all those people who stubbornly
disagree with me) would probably find reading it fruitful. (See or .doc.) The exchange at the end proved
both illuminating and amusing.

In contrast to both you and Tyler, however, I am not very troubled by the
notion that people agree to disagree, nor--and more to the point--do I
conclude that they therefore undervalue truth. Rather, I regard persistent
academic disagreements as analogous to the adversarial legal process, wherein
opposing parties deliberately exaggerate their viewpoints in order to
facilitate a systemic search for the truth. I say "analogous" because I
believe academic debates (particularly in the sciences) to tend toward truth
more reliably and efficiently than legal ones. To idealize a bit, academics
defend opposing views at least in part because they see an epistemic benefit
in preserving a diversity of opinion. You get at this a bit, I think, in
your paper's discussion of disagreement as a public good.

Beyond this, there remains a meta-meta-level good to persistent disagreement:
Debating relative trivialities keeps our reasoning facilities fit for
important issues. Consider, for instance, that we agree about almost
everything. That's perhaps an odd thing to say, but only, I think, because
we take our nearly universal agreement for granted. Most conversation,
particularly outside of professional and academic contexts, does not involve
debate. (Review, for instance, recent discussion around your household.) We
debate only a very few, usually not very important (e.g., sports), and
usually not very easily resolved (e.g., theology) issues. To give up that
jousting would disserve the search for truth, as it prepares us to tackle the
few important and resolvable disagreements that really matter. Such
disagreement is not necessarily a per se good (though I do think it proves
harmless for the most part), nor necessarily a meta-level good (though it
often produces a beneficial side effect of amusement), but may prove a
meta-meta-level good by preparing us to seek truth through debate when we
really need to do so.

Still, I agree with you, Robin (and in apparent contrast to your co-author,
Tyler), that we should at least try to improve our reasoning methods. I
perhaps disagree with you, however, in thinking that we are rather unlikely
to achieve such improvement through individual efforts; I think institutional
changes are by far more likely to succeed.

T.0. Morrow

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