The Nature and Provenance of Epistemic Stances

  1. An Indefeasible Persistence of Ontological Disagreement

Recall that Chakravartty distinguished between two kinds of “ontological uncertainty” in the previous chapter:

  • Given inconsistent descriptions of a given object, event, process, etc. within a domain, which description are we justified in believing? For example, are fluids continuous media or collections of discrete particles? This kind of uncertainty was Chakravartty’s focus in the previous chapter.  
  • In which ontological domains is belief justified and which is it not? For example, should we be realists about DNA and antirealists about processes? This is Chakrvartty’s focus in this chapter.

One might think that debates about scientific ontology are “philosophical business as usual.” Few perennial debates in philosophy ever admit of resolution or clear victors. There are two ways to look at this:

  • Given enough time, effort, and ingenuity, a clear victor will emerge by offering a decisive argument.
  • In principle, no such victory is possible, because the best arguments that can be offered will always presuppose some of the disputed grounds between opposing viewpoints.

Chakravartty adopts the latter view, but holds that the problematic presuppositions are best regarded as epistemic stances.

  • Stances Revisited
  • What is a stance? For Chakravartty’s purposes, stances are collections of “attitudes, commitments, and strategies” regarding “how purported knowledge of scientific ontology is generated.” (206)
  • Stances have non-propositional content. Propositions can be expressed as declarative sentences and can follow “that” in English. Consequently, they are not beliefs. For example, it would be incorrect to say that the empiricist stance involves belief that explanations that posit unobservable entities are bad.
  • They reflect different assessments of empirical vulnerability and explanatory power, and thereby dictate one’s tolerance for epistemic risk.

Question: One thing that has puzzled me is this claim about non-propositional content. Aside from the fact that it produces the voluntarist’s desired result, I don’t see the motivation for denying that (i) empiricists believe that certain explanations are bad, while affirming that (ii) empiricists take a negative stance toward those same explanations. The irresoluble nature of ontological debate might be that it is very hard to say what makes something an explanation, what makes it good or bad, etc. That could all be couched in terms of propositional commitments, such as beliefs, and the intractability of the debates might simply be due to the difficulty in coming to know these propositions, rather than some difference in stances. I don’t know how to adjudicate between Chakravartty’s position and this alternative. Any ideas?

Three stances are sketched:

  • The Deflationary Stance

D1.      Reject traditional philosophical (i.e., realist) understandings of scientific ontology.

D2.      A fortiori, reject the analyses of truth and reference with which they are typically explicated.

Chakravartty associates this stance with historicist, social constructivist, and pragmatist philosophers of science. He mostly seems to associate it deflationary views with “non-literal” interpretations of science, which is one way (but not the only way) in which to interpret D2. (I have voiced my misgivings about calling these views “deflationary” in an earlier post.) Chakravartty largely focuses on the other two stances.

  • The Empiricist Stance

E1.       Reject demands for explanation in terms of things underlying the observable.

E2.       A fortiori, reject attempts to answer these demands by theorizing about the unobservable.

Note that this stance puts greater weight on empirical vulnerability (or “empirical answerability,” as we prefer) and less weight on explanatory power.

  • The Metaphysical Stance

This is essentially the mirror opposite of the empiricist stance:

M1.      Accept demands for explanation in terms of things underlying the observable.

M2.      Attempt to answer these demands by theorizing about the unobservable.

Note that this stance puts less weight on empirical vulnerability (or “empirical answerability,” as we prefer) and greater weight on explanatory power.

  • Voluntarist Primer on Choosing Stances & Beliefs

Chakravartty endorses stance voluntarism: which stance one adopts is a matter of choice.

This entails a modest form of “indirect” doxastic voluntarism: what one believes is a matter of choice.

Essentially, one can make a direct choice as to what stance one adopts, and this will influence what one believes However, this is consistent with having no direct choice over what one believes; only an indirect choice. (Compare: one can make a direct choice as to how much evidence one seeks, and this will influence what one believes.)

How does one choose a stance then? Chakravartty appeals to epistemic values:

“The stances of agents reflect the things they value, epistemically, including certain kinds of information and explanation, certain kinds of evidence and argument, and intuitive judgments about what kinds of information, explanation, evidence, and argument support inferences to ontological claims and to what degrees, all of which then translates into certain epistemic policies.” (220)

However, he does not think that there is much to be said about how epistemic values are adopted. They seem to be the “bedrock” in his account.

  • It’s worth noting that there is quite a bit of debate about epistemic value in epistemology. It’s not clear how much of it bears on this discussion. Yet, as we’ll see below, Chakravartty must have some constraints on what counts as epistemic value if he is to defend his permissive conception of rationality.
  • Epistemic Stances in Conflict: Rationality & Robustness

Thus, stances are epistemic policies about how ontological knowledge should be produced from scientific claims, and they are chosen freely based on one’s core epistemic values. So, ontological commitments (beliefs about what exists) can differ as a result of one’s stance. But is every choice in stance a rational one? Chakravartty asserts the following:

If we regard the scope of ontological commitment as something that may vary, rationally, as a function of different stances, the conception of rationality at issue will have to be “permissive” in the sense that it allows (potentially) more than one stance and resulting set of beliefs, given evidential considerations, to count as rational. (223)

Following van Fraassen, he takes the rationality of adopting a stance to consist of three things:

  • The stance must not lead to logical incoherence, such that beliefs contradict each other.
  • The stance must not lead to probabilistic incoherence, such that degrees of belief violate the probability calculus.
  • The stance must not lead to pragmatic incoherence, such that the beliefs that are in tension with the attitudes and orientations of the stance itself and lead to “self-sabotage.” Later, and perhaps more clearly, he describes pragmatic incoherence as the requirement that “the stance is not self-defeating, in the sense that it leads one to believe propositions that are in tension with (thus ‘sabotaging’) the very application of the epistemic values that define the stance itself.” (232)

Chakravartty uses the blanket term “internal coherence” to cover the satisfaction of all three conditions.

Given the permissive conception of rationality, what debate can there be between those holding conflicting stances? Chakravartty makes the following points:

  • One can criticize another stance for its internal incoherence.
  • Showing that well-established stances—such as the three sketched above—are incoherent is extremely difficult. Why?
    • Stances are more resilient than the ontological beliefs they license or “facilitate.” One can revise the latter without revising the former, and often this is what is done in the face of recalcitrant evidence.
    • The only way to criticize a stance directly is by targeting the values that led to its adoption. But the deflationist, empiricist, and metaphysical stance’s core values appear internally coherent.

Consequently debates between partisans of different stances are deep and intractable. The positive lesson that Chakravartty draws is:

“the nature of the debate is transformed: we can articulate our stances, put our epistemic values on the table for examination by ourselves and by others, explain how and why they resonate with us, invite others to empathize, and encourage the same with respect to our interlocutors. This is the basis of a collaborative epistemology in the context of voluntarism.” (228)

  • In Defense of Permissive Norms of Rationality for Stances

Chakravartty concludes by addressing two final challenges to voluntarism.

  • The Relativist Argument

One objection to permissive rationality goes as follows:

R1.       If rationality is permissive, then the same body of evidence can justify the belief that P and also justify the belief that not-P.

R2.       The same body of evidence cannot justify the belief that P and also justify the belief that not-P.

So, rationality is not permissive.

For those who are interested, Chakravartty cites the following article, which is “burning up the charts” in epistemology:

  • Schoenfield, M. 2014: “Permission to Believe: Why Permissivism Is True and What It Tells Us about Irrelevant Influences on Belief,” Nous 48: 193– 218.

More generally, voluntarism in philosophy of science has many affinities with permissivism in epistemology. For a recent criticism of permissivism, see:

  • Schultheis, Ginger, 2018, “Living on the Edge: Against Epistemic Permissivism”, Mind, 127(507): 863–879. doi:10.1093/mind/fzw065

Chakravartty denies the first premise, and replaces it with the following:

R1*.     If stance voluntarism is true, then the same body of evidence can justify the belief that P and also justify the suspension of belief about P.

This is because of epistemic risk. Consider an analogy: confronted with the same data, some medical doctors might believe that a medical treatment is effective while others might suspend belief until more/different evidence comes in, owing to worries about harmful side-effects. If this strikes you as plausible, then Chakravartty is simply extending this to debates about scientific ontology. Some philosophers might believe an ontological claim, while others suspend judgment until there is more empirical evidence.

  • The Pathology Argument

The second objection to stance voluntarism is as follows:

P1.            If rationality is permissive, then pathological stances will be rational.

P2.            Pathological stances are irrational.

So, rationality is not permissive.

What is meant by a pathological stance? The paradigmatic example (232) is of a stance that disregards relevant evidence.

Chakravartty challenges the first premise, counterarguing as follows:

C1.           If rationality is permissive, then every rational epistemic stance is pragmatically coherent.

C2.           Any epistemic stance that permits the disregard of relevant evidence will be pragmatically incoherent with respect to acquiring truth.

C3.           Every epistemic stance has the acquisition of truth as one of its core values.

Not-P1.    Even if rationality is permissive, pathological stances will not be rational.  

Let’s grant C1. Is C2 true? Won’t quite a bit depend on which evidence is disregarded and which truths are valued? Perhaps Chakravartty would argue that the kinds of cases I have in mind don’t speak to the pathology objection. Truly pathological stances are ones in which all relevant evidence for all valuable truths is disregarded. Finally, consider C3. Might someone seek something that falls short of truth that is still epistemically valuable? Chakravartty might reply that such agents are not seeking something that falls short of truth; they are simply keying in on certain truths to the exclusion of others. For instance, empiricists only value truths about observables.

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