Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Open Philosophy

Here are two ideals of openness in inquiry, both of which are independently attractive on both ethical and epistemic grounds.

Per the first ideal, call it openness-to-challenge, scholars are such that their pronouncements are as falsifiable as possible; as much as can be facilitated the scholar renders themselves capable of being shown wrong, if indeed they are. The goal here is to avoid gurus and unchallengable experts. The power to have people believe what one says, especially where that is likely to guide policy and action, is, after all, a very significant source of cultural power. Epistemically, falsification is attractive for all the reasons you would guess it is attractive: it helps ensure we can set ourselves aright where we go wrong, and makes debate between opposing viewpoints more liable to end in fruitful resolution. Ethically, the significance of this ideal is grounded in the fact that epistemic power is no small thing. We should like it to be the case that if somebody gains epistemic power it is not unassailable, that there are ways of challenging what is said and ensuring that where they are in error this can be recognised and corrected, and if they too frequently try to lean on their authority that we can show them up and remove them from their position of power rather than be bamboozled.

Per the second ideal, call it openness-to-participation, scholars should be such that their pronouncements can be understood and engaged with by a broad class of people. The ideal here is to avoid esotericism, and ensure that the public have access to knowledge that affects their lives. Epistemically, this allow us to gain the benefit of receiving input from as many different independent sources as possible, as more people are able to participate in discussion and debate. Ethically, again, precisely because epistemic power is an important source of social influence, we who are democrats should like as many people to have potential access to it as possible, and this means letting people into the fold by writing and studying in an accessible fashion.

Sometimes the first and second ideals play nicely together. Generally, if more people can participate in a discussion there will be more opportunity to challenge what is said, and indeed one might expect a wider variety of considerations to be brought to bear and thus a wider variety of types of challenge. Good stuff!

But, alas, the world is not always so kind. Suppose we are reasoning about the price of some good, or the load a bridge can safely take, or...  -- or, in general, the value that some variable X will take in some range of circumstances. Two proposals are made ``The value of X is given by <some formula>'', where <some formula> requires knowledge of calculus to understand, and ``The value of X will be around r'', where r is some real number and `around' isn't further specified. It may well be that whenever the former is true the latter is. But, none the less, here the two ideals are going to come apart.

To one who values openness-to-challenge, the former looks preferable. Through greater precision the scholar who offers the proposal has opened themselves up to challenge -- their statement is in some sense more falsifiable, there are more observations we could make that would more decisively refute it, and thus challenge the epistemic power of the one who uttered it. But it involves knowledge of calculus, which is a barrier to entry for many in the population. Whereas the second involves no non-trivial mathematics. The person who wants openness to participation therefore has some reason to prefer the latter contribution. (Of course there are other ideals besides these which may give us reason to all-things-consider prefer one or the other contribution, I am just noting the direction in which I think the two openness ideals respectively pull.)

More generally, there will be situations where precisification will be the natural route to openness-to-challenge, but the tools necessary to achieve this will involve moving one away from openness-to-participation. What to do?

Alas, if you are looking for neat answers, I haven't got them. (Tell truth, if you are looking for neat answers and your first thought was to check the philosophy blogosphere... I have other questions.) There's a place for both these ideals, but working out how they should be balanced is difficult. I just want to stress here that this trade off exists and must be faced, that both openness-to-challenge and openness-to-participation can reasonably be seen as valuable ideals of clarity, but that they do not speak with one voice. I think very often people in philosophy unreflectively interpret just one of these ideals as the content of `clarity', do their best to act in accordance with it, and proceed to see others as being obtuse and unclear when in fact they are optimising against a different metric. I don't now have a solution to this conflict, but I would like us in our metaphilosophy to come to self-consciousness about it.

(This post inspired by Eric Schliesser's recent illuminating post on ideals of clarity and their role in the history of analytic philosophy. In general I know Eric thinks about this a lot, so if you are interested in the metaphilosophical role of clarity ideals he's a good person to speak to. To ward off some misunderstandings: neither openness ideal is fully realisable. A canny interlocutor can always dodge falsification if they try hard enough. And in so far as we express our thoughts linguistically, there is always at least the barrier of understanding the language. It's also not the case that in moving away from one ideal you automatically move towards the other -- I'll let readers fill in their own favourite example of something that is both esoteric and also not easy to test or refute. The relationship between these ideals then is not straightforwardly competition, confrontation, or coherence.)

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