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Catherine Elgin on peerhood and the epistemic benefits of disagreement


Conciliationism is the view that an agent must revise her belief in a proposition when she becomes aware that there is an epistemic peer who disagrees with her about that proposition. If epistemic peers are anything less than strict cognitive and evidential equals, then even slight differences could explain away why the two parties disagree in the first place. But this strict notion of peerhood never obtains in many, if not most, of real-life cases disagreements between inquirers. One recent account of peerhood which might obtain more frequently in cases of real-life disagreements comes from Elgin (in: Johnson CR (ed) Voicing dissent: the ethics and epistemology of making disagreement public, Routledge, New York, pp 10–21, 2018). She argues that two scientists who are epistemic peers can disagree because while they might have the same reasoning abilities, they can have different reasoning styles. While there are merits to Elgin’s account, I argue that two people with different reasoning styles are unlikely to be epistemic peers since such differences could serve to explain away why they disagree. I argue that there is a conception of peerhood which can retain the sceptical force of conciliationism without trivializing or dismissing the problem of disagreement. I then conclude that a particularly attractive argument against conciliationism is gestured at by Elgin in one of her earlier pieces on disagreement. This argument is based on the idea that there are epistemic benefits to be gained from remaining steadfast in the face of disagreement (Elgin, in: Feldman R, Warfield TA (eds) Disagreement, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 53–68, 2010). The success of this argument, however, might force an inquirer faced with disagreement to choose between synchronic reasons and diachronic reasons. If Hughes’ (Synthese, forthcoming) recent defense of epistemic dilemmism is correct this may be a feature of the argument, rather than a bug.

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  1. 1.

    Per Ahlberg, the member of Gierlinski’s team responsible for publishing their findings says it took six and a half years and many rejections to get their research published. Ahlberg has published numerous papers including in prestigious scientific venues such as Nature and Science. He claims to have never before experienced so much trouble getting his work published. For instance, many referees flatly denied that the footprints could be related to humans, despite expert opinion to the contrary. Ahlberg is sceptical the review process was fair, and claims many referees were just trying to bury the paper.

  2. 2.

    I discovered this story in a news article. Much of the information is from the article:*C*1195*0*0*A. See Gierlinski et al. (2017) for the published results.

  3. 3.

    Some have advocated for hybrid views which sometimes recommend conciliating and sometimes remaining steadfast. However, these are minority views and so won’t be my focus here. Likewise, it’s often difficult with such views to figure out precisely when the criteria is met for either conciliating or non-conciliating. See Lackey (2010) and Kelly (2010).

  4. 4.

    Arguments for non-conciliationism include the claim that one should privilege one’s own perspective, conciliating would exhibit a kind of spinelessness, and that conciliationism is self-referentially incoherent (Decker 2014; Sampson forthcoming). Others have suggested that conciliationism should be rejected because it can lead one to accept obviously absurd results (such as one’s doctor telling you to take one hundred thousand pills per day), and that it leads to an unpalatable scepticism (Oppy 2010; Sosa 2010). Finally, some have argued that one should not conciliate because there are epistemic benefits to be gained from remaining steadfast in the face of disagreement (Elgin 2010; Lougheed 2018; Matheson 2015b).

  5. 5.

    For simplicity I’m not going to worry about the idea that we should account for epistemic inferiors and superiors. Even if we did worry about them there is no practical way to accurate assess an opponent’s epistemic status as an inferior or superior in real-life. Without an accurate assessment and hence weighting the same lessens are going to apply here as they would in the case of peers.

  6. 6.

    Or at least they require that one need not be aware of relevant asymmetries.

  7. 7.

    Peerhood is indexed to particular times and situations because the key question is whether it is rational to believe P right now once one becomes aware of peer disagreement about P.

  8. 8.

    For more on why the idealized cases don’t apply to real-life cases see Lougheed (2018).

  9. 9.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for prompting me to address this concern.

  10. 10.

    This doesn’t exclude from possibility cases where with further explanation it could be shown that both parties are correct (or wrong). The cases I have in mind are ones in which both parties cannot be correct.

  11. 11.

    This objection is taken, almost verbatim, from an anonymous referee.

  12. 12.

    For more on type of argument see Lougheed (2018) and Elgin (2010).

  13. 13.

    To be precise, Elgin’s argument is about acceptance rather than beliefs. But the point I make here about remaining steadfast in the face of disagreement need not change in light of it. For a book-length discussion of acceptance see Elgin (2017), where she uses this idea to justify the rationality of scientific inquiry.

  14. 14.

    Note that this is consistent with the truth of the Uniqueness Thesis. See White (2005).

  15. 15.

    Though it’s worth noting Elgin is careful to distinguish her view from dogmatism. A dogmatist might remain steadfast in the face of disagreement, but she doesn’t sincerely try to understand arguments opposing here view.

  16. 16.

    This objection is taken, almost verbatim, from an anonymous referee.

  17. 17.

    Hughes does briefly say that dilemmism may apply to disagreement if we treat conciliationism and non-conciliationism as norms. It’s worth noting that if these different positions are normative, it may well be because of the difference in synchronic and diachronic reasons. This warrants further discussion, but I won’t explore it here. See Hughes (forthcoming).

  18. 18.

    This is modified from Hughes (forthcoming).

  19. 19.

    Objections to dillemism Hughes addresses include that: “It must be rejected because it leads to contradictions and explosions in deontic logic; that it must be rejected because it fails to give agents useful guidance; and that it must be rejected because it requires one to do the impossible, and thereby violates the principle ‘ought-implies-can’.” (Hughes forthcoming).

  20. 20.

    I am very grateful to two anonymous referees for extremely helpful comments on this paper. This paper was made possible, in part, by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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Lougheed, K. Catherine Elgin on peerhood and the epistemic benefits of disagreement. Synthese (2019).

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  • Elgin
  • Epistemology of disagreement
  • Conciliationism
  • Epistemic dilemmism