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07/10/2013

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Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: I think that if we're talking about some kind of epistemic burden of proof, then the answer to (1) is, trivially, yes. Radical ideas, pretty much by definition, need greater proof than less radical ideas. On the other hand, if we are again talking merely in terms of epistemic standards, the answer to (2) seems to me to be, trivially, no. The fact that a paper is radical is *itself* no epistemic reason to reject a paper. First, even if the idea is totally mistaken and poorly defended, it may nevertheless be of interest. Second, it is perfectly possible for radical ideas to be well-defended, in which case it would be an epistemic mistake to reject a paper merely on the grounds that it is "radical."

The two questions you pose, however, seem to read (though perhaps I am wrong) less as epistemic questions than as moral or professional ones. In that case -- if this is how they are being asked -- I have problems with a "yes" answer to either question.

First, it seems to me that if one wants to answer "yes" to question (1), where "obligated" is understood in a professional or moral sense, then that *itself* is a radical claim that must, if the person answering the question is to be consistent, meet a special burden of proof. But, I don't think such a standard has ever been met. The very idea that I have a moral or professional obligation to "do good philosophy" or meet someone *else's* standards has always struck me as utterly bizarre. As a free person, I should be free to do philosophy however I like. If others like my philosophy, great; if they don't, I'm out of a job. Aside from background moral requirements not to engage in fraud or deception, I fail to see how simply being a *philosopher* suffices to generate moral or professional obligations to do philosophy any particular way. I, at any rate, have never come across what I take to be a good argument for the radical claim that I, or anyone else, has such obligations -- and so, it seems to me, a "yes" answer to (1) is self-defeating. It is *itself* a radical claim that has not been defended to a suitably high standard of proof.

As to question (2), if it is understood on moral or professional terms, I think the answer is "no." If philosophers rejected papers merely on the grounds that "this idea is radical", we would not be reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, or just about any other Philosophical Greats.

For my part -- and I know I've stalked this hobby-horse many times on this blog -- I think a healthy discipline should have two elements: radical elements that boldly push things forward, and conservative elements that serve to make sure that new ideas are rigorously tested, etc.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Marcus.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter was concerned that contemporary professional Philosophy is too conservative and that some papers are rejected merely on the ground that they put forth radical ideas. From a professional point of view, then, I think I agree with you.

From an epistemic point of view, however, I don't see why "Radical ideas, pretty much by definition, need greater proof than less radical ideas." If one puts forth an idea, then one needs to persuade others that one's idea is worth taking seriously. But I don't see why the mere fact that an idea is *radical* puts on one an *extra* or *special* burden of proof.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: here was the general thought (who knows, perhaps it is wrong).

(1) An epistemically responsible agent tailors their confidence in particular beliefs, and standards of proof, in proportion to their evidence. The stronger their evidence for something, the stronger their credence in it should be, and the higher they should set their burden of proof for alternative beliefs.

(2) The conventional wisdom in a philosophical or scientific field at a given time comprises a set of beliefs about the area's subject matter that have, up to that point in time, survived reflective and/or empirical scrutiny more than alternative hypotheses.

So, (3) The further a hypothesis is away from conventional wisdom in a philosophical or scientific discipline at any given point in time -- the more radical the hypothesis -- the lower the credence in it should be, and the higher the standard of proof should be to take it seriously.

I'll be honest - I haven't given this any careful thought at all (I've been superduper busy). But, offhand, it seems reasonable to me. Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but my brain is fried! :)

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, Marcus. I am not sure about (2). The assumption seems to be that currently held beliefs are more likely to be true than new ones. But this is precisely why some worry about conservatism. That is, if we think that our currently held beliefs are more likely to be true, then why bother coming up with new ones? That's the worry from a professional point of view. From an epistemic point of view, do we have good reasons to believe that our current methods (I.e., the methods we use to test our currently held beliefs) are as truth-conducive as we think they are?

Please forgive me if this comment is a jumbled mess, I'm typing on the go.

Moti Mizrahi

By the way, for some reason, my comments regularly end up in the spam folder. :(

Joe

All I know is that (2) is certainly radical enough to incur the relevant burden.

Marcus Arvan

Joe: Are you suggesting that my (2) is radical? If so, how?

Moti: I would have thought the answer is simple -- namely, that even if conventional beliefs in a discipline are more *likely* to be true given one's present evidence than a radical new proposal (given that the former have withstood scrutiny over time whereas the new proposal has not -- at least not yet), there is always a real chance that the radical proposal *is* in fact correct. This, it seems to me, is why we should consider radical proposals. Most radical proposals are wrong, but *some* of them aren't -- and it would be a mistake to miss the one's that aren't by rejecting radical proposals simply because they are radical!

An analogy from physics: people in physics are coming up with radical new models all the time. Most of them have been discovered to be false. Yet those that haven't -- relativity, quantum mechanics -- have changed the world...

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