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Withstanding Tensions: Scientific Disagreement and Epistemic Tolerance

Part of the Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics book series (SAPERE,volume 16)


Many philosophers of science consider scientific disagreement to be a major promoter of scientific progress. However, we lack an account of the epistemically and heuristically appropriate response scientists should have towards opposing positions in peer disagreements. Even though some scientific pluralists have advocated a notion of tolerance, the implications of this notion for one’s epistemic stance and, more generally, for the scientific practice have been insufficiently explicated in the literature. In this paper we explicate a characteristic tension in which disagreeing scientists are situated and on this basis we propose a notion of epistemic tolerance.


  • Disagreement
  • Tolerance
  • Pluralism
  • Rationality

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    This has been pointed out by Bryant [3]. Feldman [13] makes a similar observation which we will discuss in more detail in Sect. 7.4.

  2. 2.

    Note that although this argument illustrates that pluralism as perspectivism attacks its own foundation, it is nevertheless different and logically independent from the more frequent argument: if pluralism is applied to itself as a position among many (incl. monism) it looses its normative force.

  3. 3.

    There is an involved discussion in epistemology what a disagreement amounts to especially if it concerns expressions such as ‘probably’, deontic ‘ought’, ‘might’ etc. In this paper it shall suffice to stay on a more pre-analytic level since our main focus is on rationality in ‘rational disagreement’ and the epistemic tension of participants in a rational disagreement.

  4. 4.

    Similarly, addressing the issue of a reasonable disagreement in politics McMahon [35] writes:

    Wherever we find political disagreement, the parties will typically be prepared to offer reasons for the positions they take. The different positions will, in this sense, be reasoned. But to assert that disagreement in a particular case is reasonable is to do more than acknowledge that the parties have reasons for the positions they take. It is to imply that at least two of the opposing positions could be supported by reasoning that is fully competent. (p. 1, italics added)

  5. 5.

    E.g., Goldman [17] points out that "two agents can have different bodies of evidence that bear on norm correctness and are relevant to the reasonability of their respective attitudes." (p. 208) Differences in this kind of norm-evidence are a reason for him to suppose that RDs are possible even in situations of "material evidential equality".

  6. 6.

    The notion Extreme Epistemic Permissiveness is taken from Brueckner and Bundy [2]. Our specification is "internalist" in the sense that we consider the perspective of a participant in a disagreement (as opposed to the perspective of an external observer). Brueckner and Bundy contrast their notion to Epistemic Permissiveness (without "extreme") which is weaker since it also covers cases where one agent believes P and another one suspends judgment on P. For more on Permissiveness and its opponent, the Uniqueness Thesis, see Sect. 7.2.

  7. 7.

    The notion of incommensurability is here used in a Kuhnian sense [26, 28], for its detailed explication see [20].

  8. 8.

    See also Footnote 5, where it was pointed out that due to having different standards of norm correctness our agent may not accept the standards of her opponent as reasonable. The latter is due to the fact that in her own experience of doing research our agent may have been exposed to different "norm-evidence", i.e., evidence that supports the correctness of norms.

  9. 9.

    See Šešelja and Straßer [43] for a discussion and criticism of this issue in Kuhn.

  10. 10.

    Baltas' notion of background "assumptions" follows the Wittgensteinian idea of "quasi-logical, or rather grammatical, conditions allowing the concepts involved in the inquiry to make sense" (p. 41). He also distinguishes between different levels of background assumptions and on the basis of these between different types of scientific controversies.

  11. 11.

    According to the rule of predesignation a hypothesis is tested only by the new predictions drawn from it and not by its ability to explain—ex post hoc—what was already known.

  12. 12.

    Higher-order evidence has been discussed under different names e.g. by Feldman [12] ("second-order evidence") and Kelly [23] ("higher-order evidence"). Our presentation is mostly inspired by Christensen [6].

  13. 13.

    We will comment more on biases in Sect. 6.

  14. 14.

    Kelp and Douven [24] present a variation of the Steadfast Norm in which the permission to remain steadfast is temporarily limited in view of being associated with the epistemic duty to find reasons to "resist the peer's case in favour of his conclusion", or to find new supporting evidence, or to be able to "explain how one's peer could have become involved in error" (p. 105).

  15. 15.

    The norms that are suggested by scholars in the epistemology of peer disagreement are often phrased in terms of "adjusting beliefs". This has been criticized by e.g., Elgin [10] as "wrong-headed" (p. 61) since "given a body of evidence, there is no choice about what to believe." (p. 60) Adopting the distinction between beliefs and acceptance from Cohen [7] she suggests to rephrase the debate in terms of acceptance rather than belief where "to accept that p is to adopt a policy of being willing to treat p as a premise in assertoric inference or as basis for action where our interests are cognitive." (p. 64) Related worries concerning the notion of belief and arguments in favor of various types of acceptance can be found in Elliott and Willmes [11]. We are sympathetic to this approach and our discussion is coherent with this rephrasing.

  16. 16.

    The Equal Weights View has been criticized for the problems of rendering epistemic agents spineless and lacking self-trust. Elga [9] replies to this.

  17. 17.

    Forst also includes the condition that toleration be practiced voluntarily.

  18. 18.

    The objection and admission criterion make epistemic tolerance a second-order attitude (i.e., directed at first-order attitudes). For a similar emphasis on the second-order level, cf. Hazlett [19]. Hazlett suggests that in a peer disagreement about H you need not revise your first-order attitude towards H, but should suspend judgment on whether your and your peer's first-order attitudes towards H are reasonable (which he calls the attitude of ‘intellectual humility').

  19. 19.

    A comment is in place concerning the problem of intentional ignorance. Given a conditional norm an agent may try to avoid responsibility by means of trying to avoid the very knowledge of the fact that the triggering conditions of the conditional norm are met. In our case, an agent could try to ignore the recognition of the indices of RD and hence the recognition that the admission criterion is met. We take this problem to be a deep problem within meta-ethics which is not specific to our context and is in need of an independent unifying solution. Intuitively speaking, an agent who behaves in this way seems to be intolerant in some way. However, we decided to characterize our notion of epistemic tolerance in a non-circular way such that it does not also regulate the ways in which agents deal with its triggering conditions.

  20. 20.

    Robin Warren and Barry Marshall document that this is precisely what happened to their submission of an abstract presenting their research on Helicobacter pylori, as the bacteria that are one of the major causes of peptic ulcer disease, to the Gastroenterology Society of Australia in 1983, when according to the dominant theory, bacteria were not among the possible etiological factors of this illness: "our abstract was not accepted, with the condolence letter from the secretary stating that, ‘of 67 abstracts submitted we could only accept 56’, thus our material must have been rated in the bottom 10 %!" [34, p. 184]. In 2005 Warren and Marshall were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.

  21. 21.

    See also our discussion in Sect. 7.4.

  22. 22.

    The reader finds various historical examples in Laudan [31].

  23. 23.

    Mill writes: "Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for the purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right" (p. 15).

    Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form … (p. 26).

  24. 24.

    Permissiveness is systematically criticized by White [47]. There it is associated with Van Fraassen's epistemology, the Epistemic Conservatism of Harman and Lycan, and epistemologies that aim for reflective equilibria as Rawls or Goodman. A critical reply is to be found in Brueckner and Bundy [2].

  25. 25.

    Laudan states: "But beyond demanding that our cognitive goals must reflect our best beliefs about what is and what is not possible, that our methods must stand in an appropriate relation to our goals, and that our implicit and explicit values must be synchronized, there is little more that the theory of rationality can demand." (ibid, p. 64).

  26. 26.

    McMahon [35] makes a similar point: "since personal histories of problem solving differ, competently reasoning experts can disagree" (p. 12).

  27. 27.

    Similarly, Moffett [37] argued for the possibility of RDs in view of underdetermination and epistemic conservatism.

  28. 28.

    The principle reads as follows: "to the extent that what is reasonable for one to believe depends on one's total evidence, historical facts about the order in which that evidence is acquired make no difference to what it is reasonable for one to believe." (ibid., p. 616).

  29. 29.

    See also Footnote 5 for Goldman's notion of norm-evidence which seems to fall under or at least complement this approach.

  30. 30.

    Friedman points out that "from the point of view of the old constitutive framework [the new framework] is not even (empirically) possible." (p. 99). Note that, according to Friedman, "[t]he standards of communicative rationality are given by […] an empirical space of possibilities or space of reasons" (p. 93). This clearly indicates that Friedman is forced to move from a narrow conception of his space of reasons (and thus of communicative rationality) to a wider notion in order to bridge the gap between incommensurable frameworks.


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The research of this paper was supported by the Special Research Fund (BOF) Ghent University and the Research Foundation—Flanders (FWO)—for Christian Straßer and Jan Willem Wieland as FWO postdoctoral fellows, and for Dunja Šešelja as a BOF postdoctoral fellow.

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Straßer, C., Šešelja, D., Wieland, J.W. (2015). Withstanding Tensions: Scientific Disagreement and Epistemic Tolerance. In: Ippoliti, E. (eds) Heuristic Reasoning. Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics, vol 16. Springer, Cham.

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