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. – Noah Schweber Mar 19 '20 at 23:14
  • An excellent point. But that there are "no equally acceptable accounts which are pragmatically incompatible." is an empirical question. And pragmatism begs the question "works for what," or toward what end? – gonzo Mar 19 '20 at 23:36
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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 '20 at 0:21
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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 '20 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 '20 at 7:24

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.

  • 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 '20 at 18:26

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