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William James long ago noted that:

“Up to about 1850 almost everyone believed that sciences expressed truths that were exact copies of a definite code of non-human realities. But the enormously rapid multiplication of theories in these lat¬ ter days has well-nigh upset the notion of any one of them being a more literally objective kind of thing than another. There are so many geometries, so many logics, so many physical and chemical hypotheses, so many classifications, each one of them good for so much and yet not good for everything, that the notion that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript has dawned upon us.”

This, over the course of the 20th Century, has given rise to an [epistemic] pluralism that Michael P. Lynch has described as the notion that there are “incompatible but equally acceptable accounts of some subject matter.” This, he posits, gives rise to the problem of “finding room for objectivity inside the pluralist’s picture of the world.” That is the problem of "allowing for different truths without slipping into the nihilistic position that there is no truth at all."

The [potentially helpful] heuristic analogy, of course, is that of Dostoevsky’s observation in The Brothers Karamazov that if God does not exist everything is permitted. Anything goes.

So the question is [in the arguably extant ethos of “post truth” -- OED’s word of the year in 2016] should, and if so, how, does [the potentially slippery slope of] epistemic pluralism [with its associated concepts of diversity and inclusion] avoid a descent into epistemic nihilism (either innocently, or under the influence of the rhetorical tactics of bad faith actors)?

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    If I recall, addressing this was part of James' Pragmatism already. Take for example determinism vs. free will (which IIRC was an example James focused on) - they're clearly incompatible, but that incompatibility can't "manifest" appropriately so in some sense it's not compelling. A pluralist-but-not-nihilist may then take the stance that while there are incompatible but equally acceptable accounts of some subject matter, there are no equally acceptable accounts which are pragmatically incompatible. But it's been a long time since I read the book, so I could be misremembering wildly. Mar 19, 2020 at 23:14
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    First, there is a long way from having more than one "definite code" to anything goes, especially if the codes are designed to serve different purposes. Second, just because more than one will do, even for the same purpose, does not mean that any one will do, or that all will do equally well. The lesson of pragmatism is that "the truth" is always dependent on which end it is for, and whose, but in many contexts the ends and standards are widely shared, and the number of incompatible options that pass the shared tests of coherence, plausibility, unification, parsimony, etc., is very limited.
    – Conifold
    Mar 20, 2020 at 0:21
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    Nihilism is the flip side of absolutism. Either we carve the nature at its joints or anything goes, either God himself lays down morality or anything is permitted. It is the rigid all or nothing traditional ideology, that Dostoevsky's quote perfectly embodies, that brought about the existential panic and the farce of post-truth. In the wake of its inevitable collapse. I see pragmatism not as an ill but as a cure, a shot of rational humility and moderation to face off the extremes. If indeed the public absorbed absolutism and post-truth from academics if only we got it to absorb the pragmatism.
    – Conifold
    Mar 20, 2020 at 6:21
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    Ends and desiderata are there at work as is, although they may not be spelled out. That pragmatism puts them upfront isn't an issue, it is a feature. Their formulation and clarification is part of the process, not unlike building theories in empirical science. Which is why pragmatic ethics isn't utilitarian, with some fixed, and nebulous, "utility". The search for such utility, and stability it promises, is a residue of the longing for moral absolutes, with their false dilemmas.
    – Conifold
    Mar 21, 2020 at 7:10
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    We are as fallible in understanding our ends as in forging our means, healthy skepticism of their full embrace is a good buffer for the fallout when they misfire, just as scientific theories do at times. Sensitivity to motivated doubt and critical self-correction tout court, that Peirce advocated, are better instruments of maintaining stability than a rigid foundation that wears it on its sleeve, but never delivers. Pluralism and diversity as ends in themselves are as inimical to pragmatism as moral absolutes, so it is well-equipped for checking both absolutism and nihilism alike.
    – Conifold
    Mar 21, 2020 at 7:24

5 Answers 5

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This is a very good question.

Epistemic nihilism is a rational construct, and as such it can only come second in our determination as to what we should do next. Rationality is a tool we have available to us to achieve what we want, it does not decide what we want.

Rationality is at the surface of our brain's activity. Most of what we understand about the world is intuitive. Intuition is essentially logical, but it works from our representation of the world. Some of that is essentially based on past perception, but, crucially, some is determined by our rational musings. Spend enough time convincing yourself that the world is a simulation, and your brain will take it on board that the world is a simulation, and from there your intuitions will logically reflect this assumption. We can convince ourselves of anything if we try hard enough.

Thus, any form of rational perspective, to the extent that we take it seriously, may become recycled into our intuitions. This is the weak point of rationality, when our intuitions come to support our reasoning because our reasoning have fed our intuitions. This explains dogmatism and apparent irrationality.

However, this won't affect what we want. It will only affect how we go about achieving what we want. It may turn out to be a hindrance but this is impossible to tell in advance. Different people believe different things and only some of them will be successful. Well, nothing really new here.

It also seems apparent that not all academics are radical sceptics. There seems to exist some level of diversity in metaphysical beliefs, which is the necessary ingredient to ensure that unorthodox points of view will remain expressed. Often, the major discoveries have come from outside the dogmatic consensus.

The question is a very good one, but the worry seems mundane: academics worrying about their posterity as a social class.

It is likely that radical scepticism affects how academics behave, but it won't make them stop wanting whatever humans want. It will only affect how they try to achieve what they want to achieve. Nobody knows that this could become a problem.

Yes, anything goes, but only as far as rationality is concerned. Rational people remain human beings and they cannot change their own nature. They cannot decide what they want. Rationality should be seen as the more adaptable part of our behaviour. We may believe that anything goes, but this in itself won't decide what we want. It can only help us achieve what we want, for good or bad.

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    Precisely. Reason cannot tell you where [you want/ought] to go, but only how to get there. I like to compare it to roads, as represented on a map. Do you wanna take the quickest most direct route, the scenic route, etc. Have a look at my discussion with Conifold in the comments under the question.
    – gonzo
    Mar 20, 2020 at 18:26
  • @gonzo maybe if lots of people want to go somewhere, we should improve the roads, provide public transit, etc.? If they all want to go over a cliff, then I guess we have to provide therapy as well.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24, 2023 at 11:38
  • I see Nonduality as the cure for convincing ourselves of anything. I very much appreciate your concise explanation of how reason and 'intuition' become mutually ensnared.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24, 2023 at 11:39
  • @gonzo "Reason (...) I like to compare it to roads" I don't but I compare logic, or logical reasoning, to walking. We can choose where to go and we can backtrack if necessary. But some reasonings or arguments become like roads travelled by very many people. Roads are part of the landscape. Logic allows us to choose which road to try, or even if we try going across the countryside. Feb 4, 2023 at 17:57
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It, in me humble opinion, depends on what definition of truth (knowable stuff) we employ. Epistemic nihilism, looks like, only has force if we subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth. The other two theories of truth - the coherence theory of truth and the pragmatic theory of truth - are immune to skepticism. We're not looking for truths, we're trying to make sense of the world (coherence) and/or do what's best for us (pragmatism).

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  • Helpful list. The only point of making sense of the world is to be able to improve on doing what is best for us (emphasis on us)
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24, 2023 at 12:48
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Classical logic operates off the "All or Nothing" paradigm. And we intuitively think in classical logic terms, because that is how classic logic was developed (apply intuitive logic to itself, to identify faults in our intuitions, then correct them to produce the minimally modified intuitive logic that is coherent). This is why there is so much appeal to classical logic, to yes/no either/or thinking, and to ideologies and dogmas. We humans intuitively think that way.

We have, however, developed a completely different way of thinking which we do in parallel to our intuitive logic either/or. This is empiricism. Empiricism treats the "truth" as uncertain, and subject to investigation. And "truth" models as improvable. See for example sporting stars who, rather than declaring their play to be perfect, continually strive to improve upon excellence, for an example of tentative empiricism in action. Tentative empiricism leads to "likely" or useful answers, which are only locally valid. "Under these conditions, kicking the ball this way works well". The bundle of local answers that empiricism gives us is NOT and CANNOT be logically coherent. It is jsut a bundle of useful rules and guidelines that is incomplete, and may lead to many mutual contradictions.

Science is a formalization of our informal empiricism. As such, it is intrinsically incomplete, incoherent, and a pluralist amalgam of very different and incompatible models. This is a reality about science that rationalists, seeking their One True TRUTH, have tried to gloss over. Our more insightful philosophers of science -- James, Pierce, and Popper leading among them -- realized that science is incompatible with the rationalist vision of One True Truth. The spread of this realization has been a slow process, with many who lean toward science starting from the Logical Positivist view of science as a step-child of logic and an assistant in finding the One Truth.

But today, the consensus among philosophers of science is in favor of pluralism: that science can NEVER be integrated into One True Theory of Everything. AND that not all knowledge is discoverable thru science -- so science is one of several ways to discover "truths". See section 5 of the SEP article on scientific reduction: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/

Most of us humans STILL instinctively think in all/nothing either/or terms. And if pluralism is the case for our world, and even mighty science cannot by definition develop a logically coherent worldview -- then for all/nothing thinking there must be NO truths!!!

But Pragmatism offers a different answer. We have LOCAL truths -- ways to act, ways to think, that are IMMENSELY valuable. We need to learn these local truths, and abide by them. And when they end up in conflict, due to the intrinsic incoherence of pluralism -- there are BETTER and WORSE ways to try to resolve those conflicts. Dogmatism, and violence, are among the worst ways. Openness to self-doubt, dialog, compromise, and possible fusion into a new and mutually compatible local "truth", a Hegelian synthesis, are better ways.

To live in this world, we need to develop judgement, and operate thru humility. There is no formula that we can live by and just turn the crank and get the answer. Thinking thru how to live, is work, and work we need to do, and no answer we have will be the "final answer". But some answers are far better than others. This is the reply to nihilists and "post truth".

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  • My stomache operates on an all or nothing basis.
    – J D
    Jan 24, 2023 at 20:07
  • And we do need to develop better judgement through humility, but I don't think the social institutions are there yet. Right now, it's sort of hit or miss.
    – J D
    Jan 24, 2023 at 20:14
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Arguing that epistemic pluralism is self-falsifying is a retorsion argument, which kind of argument was discussed extensively here. But there is another way to describe how epistemic pluralism might undermine itself:

Suppose person A says that they believe in, or use, method X to justify their beliefs. But A allows that many other Ys could be so used, etc. and there is no absolute vantage from which to judge between X, Y, and so on.

Now, B comes along and says, "According to my perspective, A doesn't actually disagree with me. Oh, they might sound like it, their X might sound unlike my Y, but according to A, there's no fact-of-the-matter about X as such, neither Y, so why can't I just interpret A as agreeing with me, regardless of what it sounds like A is saying with X?"

How, that is, can A claim that there is, absolutely, a plurality of viewpoints in the first place? How can they defend the idea that X and Y are actually opposed? But so this wouldn't be a self-falsifying pluralism; this would be a pluralism that negates its own conditions of meaningfulness. If pluralism is not sayable as absolute in some capacity, it is not sayable at all; or, it is impossible to differentiate, in the limit, from monism/absolutism more generally.

For broad discussion of disagreement, see the linked SEP article; on moral disagreement specifically, see that linked SEP article.

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Personally I would partition the 'is' from the 'ought.'

The 'is' and the 'ought' can be philosophically denoted as epistemology and axiology respectively. I think this distinction is an important one to make when discussing any type of pluralism, because through this partition you can form a belief pluralism and a moral pluralism.

There are those who will debate whether two plus two equals four or five, a belief pluralism, and there are those who will debate whether men wearing dresses is right or wrong, a moral pluralism. In belief pluralism, you can use an array of methods invoking the goal of obtaining truth and avoiding error. In moral pluralism, your arguments are more subjective in nature, calling on past experience or evidence from some 'objective superiority,' like a religious text, etc.

I find comfort in realizing moral pluralism is just as much epistemology as it is axiology. Morals can't be objectively more valid than other morals; however, morals can be obtained and altered through one's environmental experience via an objective process. The epistemology is understanding how every wave of light, every wave of sound, every force and particle to ever interact with your body alters the molecular structure of your nervous system, determining totally your axiological beliefs.

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