Theory on framework issues

Saturday, February 26, 2011



The leading concept, epistemic superiority (discussed in 11.0), refers to relatively greater capacity to distinguish relevant truth from falsity, as demonstrated by objective evidence. Epistemic justification refers to evidence proving an adherent's epistemic superiority. Credentialing means according epistemic superiority. The agreement theorem (according to my parsing) requires epistemic justification to claim epistemic superiority rationally. Rational adherents modify their beliefs upon learning that an epistemic equal disagrees.

Superior expertise

Proving the agreement theorem is mathematically trivial, and the previous post was supposed to demonstrate, almost intuitive. Yet, because the theorem conflicts with prevailing norms, which reinforce adherents' untoward opinionation, mathematically sophisticated students commonly reject the proof initially. Contentious beliefs—their adherents regarding themselves epistemically superiorindeed complicate matters, but self-description isn't epistemic justification: a claim to epistemic superiority is just another justification-requiring belief. Self-credentialing is rational only if adherents first prove their epistemic superiority with respect to their claim to epistemic superiority!

Circular reasoning is obvious when adherents contend adherence to the belief itself proves their epistemic qualifications, but some dodges are subtler. As an example of the evasions, consider "birthers" (Americans who believe Obama's "real" birthplace is presidentially disqualifying), called upon to justify their ideological self-confidence enough to survive their beliefs' overwhelming rejection. Birthers may believe that, as such, antibirther beliefs epistemically discredit their adherents, but this argument is circular because the same ideological isolation discredits both belief and credential. Sophisticated birthers might invoke a subtler form of question begging, claiming vindication by other equally contentious positions—perhaps, adherents' "discernment" that Obama is Muslim—but these adherents' struggles against the stigma of intellectual isolation unwittingly prove their epistemic inferiority, despite the lesser absurdity of Muslim baiting compared to citizenship paranoia.

Leveraging credible beliefs to demonstrate adherents' expertise occasionally succeeds, but credentialing is more commonly based on direct grounds, as when experts' training vouchsafes their expertise against masses of disagreeing nonprofessionals. Also, experts reasonably disregard lesser experts, as Albert Einstein did Niels Bohr, who insisted Einstein was mistaken to reject quantum mechanics. Einstein replied he had earned the right to be mistaken. His demonstrated powers of physical intuition justified self-credentialing his opinion. Analogizing the credentialing process to averaging measurements of duration—with equally accurate clocks, the readings should be averaged, but a reading from an ancient 0-jewel wind-up clock should be overridden by one from an atomic clock.

Superior methods

Claiming superiority in method—in the manner of the Catholic Church—is a systematic way to bolster epistemic credentials and save an opinion from its fate as one of many. If the Church's claim that the Pope speaks for God were demonstrable, then taking your cue from priests would be more rational than relying on your cogitations.

Another bootstrapping method is Marxist sociological justification, which can be treated as an answer to demands for epistemic justification: under the agreement theorem, what justifies accepting Marxism when most intellectuals disagree? The Marxist answers that these opponents, however erudite, belong to (or identify with) an exploitative social class, blinding them to subversive truths. If the workers accept Marxist socialism, while the bourgeoisie espouses liberalism, conservatism, or reaction, the line-up reveals politics' class dependence, and the argument avoids circularity if independent historical evidence supports the bourgeoisie's epistemic inferiority. Thus, Marxism contains theoretical machinery adequate, in principle, to justify Marxists' intellectually isolated iconoclasm. No doubt this contributes to its endurance.

Equal credentials

Granting the Marxist claim that the main political divisions represent social classes differing in epistemic endowment, most political and religious disputes still would be between approximate epistemic equals. Republicans and Democrats vituperate with language proven lethal, without there being a rational basis justifying either's epistemic superiority. Marxist ideologues, too, disagree vehemently, although none occupy superior epistemic positions. The disputants' epistemic equality doesn't temper these disagreements, whereas it should among rational adherents.

Under-weighting others' beliefs in effect equates belief (all-things-considered position) with individual opinion (others' beliefs factored out) despite the rationality of differentiating them. Confusion about the distinct societal roles of belief and opinion explains this irrationality.

Next essay: The distinct societal functions of belief and opinion.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Two distinct attitudes—which I'll call belief and opinion—go by the name “belief,” and distinct pathologies—fanaticism, opinionation, conformism, and equivocation— result from confusing them. The difference between belief and opinion is manner of formation. Beliefs are what you hold true, all things considered; opinions are what’s left after you factor out reliance on other people's beliefs. The way belief and opinion are confused differentiates the pathologies.

The distinction’s formal description might seem trivial, but its implications are counter-intuitive. A theorem that won economist Robert Aumann a Nobel Prize expresses the paradox. Aumann proved that if two agents in the same epistemic position have different beliefs, they should, rationally, split the difference.

To get the idea and see the point, start with simple factual beliefs. You and nine others estimate the number of marbles in a fish bowl. You observers are indistinguishable by your relevant abilities and experiences, but you guess higher than most others do. Then, Aumann's theorem (the "agreement theorem") says you should lower your estimate by adopting the average of all ten as your own belief. One way to explain the reason is each observer functions as a measuring instrument. If you have ten rulers with equal credentials for measuring length, you obtain the most reliable estimate by averaging the ten. You should treat each observer as a measuring instrument, and as you should average ten separate, epistemically indistinguishable rulers, you should adopt the average result of the human “instruments.” You have no rational basis to give more weight to your own opinion than to that of the other observers, even in forming your own belief.

This might be fine and well when applied to estimating marbles in a fish bowl, but think of applying the principle to important beliefs.

Next part: Is “epistemic equality” a fiction?

Correction (February 23, 2011): Aumann is best known for his agreement theorem (and for reactionary politics), but he won the Nobel Prize on other bases.

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SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.