A Discussion About Epistemic Authority

I’ve been browsing some blogs using the tag “epistemology” for the first time yesterday and immediately found an entry that struck me as interesting and well written. In his post “Trust the Experts? Maybe Not”, Ryan Cook discusses why “we have good reason to doubt that an appeal to relevant authority is always a good bet”.

I felt inclined to make some minor remarks and ended up writing this huge comment, which is substantial enough to make for an own blog post. It can be read on its own, but if you’d like to read the whole discussion you can do so here.


The topic of epistemic authority is an interesting, relevant, and also difficult one. If I understand you correctly, you are imagining the situation of an individual that has just started to learn about a certain scientific topic. Because of this, I assume that the person only has a very basic stock of information and is not yet fully trained in the method of the relevant science either (if one presupposes a more advanced student the situation changes, of course).

You mention one general problem when it comes to making use of another person’s premises. We have to assume quite a lot of things:

a) honesty on their part
b) correctness of reasoning and
c) use of adequate methods and technology

I wish to add two more issues:

d) epistemic security – and, therewith, I describe my knowledge of the track record (the beliefs that are (implicitly) presupposed) and the justification relations that have been used by that person.
e) existing power structures and biases (I realize that you included that point in your text already. I just want to separate it from the second one, because I think it is of greater importance).

I assume that only the fourth (and the last) aspect(s) are of importance in the situation described above and I’ll try to show you why I think that this is the case.

Discussion of b): The expert’s reasoning may be faulty.
The first thing I want to assume is that an authority in a certain scientific field usually makes his argument transparent to the reader, which means that we can analyze it and decide for ourselves. I understand that some of the commonly used premises might be problematic, but considering the situation of the new student, I would still assume that the expert is in a distinctively better position to evaluate the existing premises and theses. This is the case, because the person is simply much more informed and can access a greater amount of data to make their decision.
Additionally, although it is certainly not impossible for anyone to be wrong, the papers that an expert has written are peer reviewed and discussed by his critics. The person would not have the status of an expert for a very long time, if their reasoning had a tendency to be faulty.
On the other hand, there is a student, who is still in training and has not fully developed his argumentative skills. He has a smaller stack of known argumentative structures and common fallacies and is therewith much more likely to make mistakes. Additionally, all problems that you describe for the expert in this section can also be applied to the student.

An analogous argument can be made for problem c).

Problem a): Honesty
My assumption is that dishonesty usually does not occur without any reason (which is mainly an empirical question, but depends on ones conception of a “lie”). Unless there is some benefit for the scientist or some underlying issues of power (point e)), it is unlikely that the expert is lying. Therewith, the problem should be attributed to the last problem mentioned above.
Although people do lie, it is not reasonable to assume that they do so most of the time, because it would render any scientific discourse useless and leave us with the possibility of absolute epistemic egoism, only (this position is problematic, because it only enables us to gain a very limited amount of knowledge about the world).

Problem d): Epistemic security
This reason can even be used to argue for epistemic egoism. Everything else equal, we will always have a better track record of our own beliefs and justification relations, because we can try to access them introspectively. We also have the possibility to try and be sensitive to our own biases and include this self-knowledge in the evaluation of our argument (although this is not successful in many cases).
On the other hand, we can only use the information that another person offers us when we rely on their assumptions. There is also always the difficulty of miscommunication.

You already gave reasons for e) in your post.

Most of my thoughts about this are evidently based on the study of philosophy, because I’m most knowledgeable in that field. There may be differences when focusing on other sciences.


A last note: Although I was arguing for the trust in an expert that I tried to describe as a reasonable epistemic authority, I do not in the least want to encourage people to not read and think critically! Please do so and please keep doing so when you advance in your studies. If you study a lot, there will be the day where you come to be one of the experts and contribute to your field (and maybe even significantly change it).
I hope to see that day soon as well😛.


A Linguistic Transgression

I grew up a liar.
Pretending to have toy cars and squirt guns,
but I wasn’t allowed to share them.
I rejected my mother’s rosy presents,
because I thought I had to be a man.

He struggles:
I want to describe myself in your terms,
but I don’t exist for you.

Weird bulges developed on my body
and I tried to speak and act righteosly,
but I remained a liar.
For each success my mother spilled the dirty secret.
And pushed me into my place.

She struggles:
I want to describe myself in your terms,
but I don’t exist for you.

I suffer from daltonism
but I know when to stop and when to go.
Even today I feel like a liar.
I’m so hungry,
but you force me to eat my soup with a fork.

They struggle:
I want to describe myself in your terms,
but I don’t exist for you.

They cried and screamed
that they weren’t a pig.
They cut the other’s brain.
but the angry mob ate them anyways.

They struggle:
I can describe myself in my own terms
and I will exist in the scar inflicted on you.


This poem addresses a feeling and difficulties that most people that don’t fit with the binary gender distinction will know. The meaning of the lines

“I want to describe myself in your terms,
but I don’t exist for you.”

becomes even clearer, when you consider that there is no easy possibility to signify this by using pronouns in the German language (-> I’m German). I’ve heard people using “they” instead of “he” or “she” in English, but a construction like that is not possible in every language.  As our languages greatly influence the way we think, we should come up with a way to (linguistically) include non-binary individuals as well.

Until then, I’ll have to stick to this:


© iFunny 2016


Proud Ignorance, Vegan Hate, and a Change in Curricula


Dilbert by Scott Adams


Until recently, I had never experienced a proudly ignorant person in real life and it had always felt more like an internet phenomenon, but yesterday it happened.

My partner brought an acquaintance over that he had met at a friend’s place. I assume their shared heritage (they are both Americans living in Germany) and their interest in video games had led to that connection.

When Chris* came over, my boyfriend invited me to join them as well and we met at a restaurant to eat something. When the question came to why I started studying philosophy, I told him that it had initially been my second choice after a biology major. When he asked me why, I answered that it would have been obligatory to work with mice that they bred and killed for that specific purpose and that I was vegan – hence, it would have forced me to act against my moral convictions. I then quickly changed the subject to which discipline of philosophy I was aiming to pursue and asked him about his own studies, too.

I thought I had successfully dodged the bullet, but as soon as the waiter brought our food, the ordeal started (note that I was really trying to be friendly with him, because he was my partner’s guest). At first, he kept going on about how tasty his meat was for about 5 minutes straight, then he kept “joking” about vegans being weird and non-human for another 5 minutes. So far so good. I was slightly annoyed by his sheer persistence, but it wasn’t all that bad.

It became interesting when he asked me why I decided to go vegan and I told him how I don’t want to cause unnecessary harm to other conscious beings. Apart from that, it is better for the environment and ,therewith, in the interest of humans as well.

Instead of reacting to what I was saying, he simply decided that I was wrong and claimed that animals are not morally relevant, because they are not humans. I kept asking him about the reason for the moral relevance that he ascribed to humans. “Is there a certain property?” “Would you maybe say that humans are more relevant, because of their relation to other humans?” I told him that so far, he had only given me a thesis, not a whole argument.

He continued to say that he would not feel inclined to help an injured dog in the streets, but that he would feel different about humans, so I inquired whether his criterion of choice was his personal relationship to the beings in question. He ignored that and made a remark on the lack of intelligence in dogs. I mentioned studies from the field of cognitive ethology and told him that a dog’s intelligence is comparable to that of a 3 year old. Considering this, it should be morally irrelevant, if I do harm to small children or certain mentally ill individuals. He didn’t like that and returned to the statement that there is still a difference, because they are still human (note that this only brings him back to his unsupported first thesis).

The glorious end of the “discussion” was marked by him deciding that he had “won the argument”, because he had refused to give me an argument, which led to me not being able to convince him (the heck?). He was actually proud of acting in an unreasonable and ignorant way.

This example is, as I said, taken from a singular personal experience of mine and I don’t mean to suggest that all  human omnivores are unable to give a sound and valid argument. It is mainly meant to illustrate how a proudly ignorant person engages in “discussions”.

I am still baffled about his lack of interest in a reasonable argument. And I am even more concerned about the obvious pride that his behavior seemed to elicit in himself. Those are the kinds of people that cause and strengthen social injustices in all of their forms. They are often speciesist, sexist, and/or racist and, therewith, pose a threat to the freedom of many other individuals that are part of a free and diverse society.

I don’t have a perfect solution on how to deal with proudly ignorant people, but it seems clear that preventing people from acquiring a damaging attitude like that is easier than making them change their way in adulthood. Therefore, we should emphasize critical thinking and teach argumentation theory and basic logic at schools. Those skills are of great importance in most of the areas of our lives and there are better reasons for making this part of the obligatory curriculum than for memorizing the structure of a cell membrane.

I had my chance to vent and let you know about my thoughts. Now it’s up to you as well: Can you relate to my point of view or did I just write a load of nonsense?  Have you ever encountered proudly ignorant people? Tell me about it. 😉

On Self-Knowledge and the Difference Between Academic and Everyday Philosophy



In my last semester I visited a seminar in which we discussed Quassim Cassam’s book Self-Knowledge for Humans. It was concerned with the sources and the epistemic standing of different kinds of self-knowledge as well as the way we are able to acquire it.

It is always funny to see how the interests of academic philosophers and everyday thinkers vary and the distinction between trivial and substantial self-knowledge is a good example for that.

a) trivial self-knowledge describes the sort of second order knowledge (the knowledge of ones mental states like beliefs and desires) about oneself that is concerned with very simple things in life. I know that I believe that I am wearing beautifully colored striped socks, I know that I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla flavored ice cream, I know that I think that David Bowie was the most amazing musician ever.

b) substantial self-knowledge on the other hand concerns knowledge about my own character, about my values, my aptitudes, etc.

Cassam is right in pointing out that most academic philosophers that discuss the issue of self-knowledge focus on the first type while most other people probably feel like the the second type is of much more importance. Who would write passages, pages, or even books about their knowledge of their beliefs about socks (even if they are really pretty looking)?

The answer to the discrepancy can be found when we look at the thinkers’ goals.

Philosophers that are mainly interested in questions concerning epistemology (~what can we know? What is knowledge? How could and should we increase our own knowledge? And countless more questions) are interested in the type of knowledge that seems to have a special epistemic standing. Trivial self-knowledge can easily be gained. It seems to be an automatic process and we are unlikely to err in these cases. Immediacy* would be the first property that makes it special. Incorrigibility is the second one. When it comes to my knowledge of my food preferences I am in the best position to actually give a correct answer. It would seem weird if another person came along to tell me that I actually like the taste of vanilla ice cream the most. Finding out about those distinctions is important as it helps us gain important conceptual tools when it comes to understanding how we learn about our inner lives and how secure the types of knowledge are (this gains special importance in the context of the question of  epistemic authority (the question of whose beliefs should be rationally accepted).

Substantial self-knowledge is neither immediate nor incorrigible so it lacks a special epistemic standing and is therefore not as interesting for many academic philosophers. Most everyday thinkers seek solutions to important and difficult questions about themselves which automatically leads them to the second type of self-knowledge. They want to gain an insight into their own character and try to learn what drives or scares them. They try to learn who they are and who they want to be and the knowledge they acquire is difficult to gain. It is also not only possible, but quite likely that we (as humans with our specific psychological condition) make mistakes in the self-attribution of certain values and in many instances it is possible that a close friend, family member, or partner is in a better position to judge certain character traits than we are.

The abstract about trivial self-knowledge was supposed to illustrate the peculiar way of viewing a certain topic from a perspective of contemporary theoretical philosophy. What this second part teaches everyone of us is that in some instances, we should not immediately assume that we know a certain aspect of our personality the best. Learning about oneself is not only an individual, but also a social process. We can (partly) get to know ourselves through others. 



*In the course of the book Cassam also rejects the immediacy of trivial self-knowledge, but the immediacy assumption remains important, because it is endorsed by many rationalist thinkers.



Cassam, Quassim: Self-Knowledge for Humans. Oxford, 2014.








I’m just a neutral child in grown men’s shoes,
my mother taught me not to talk with strangers.
And I pretend to look at my life from another person’s point of view,
but the seriousness weighs heavily and it burdens me.
(Such is life’s) Absurdity.


This is a poetic version of Thomas Nagel’s definition of philosophical absurdity (derived from his essay “The Absurd”).
According to him, the philosophically relevant (here in the sense of universally present) notion derives from the very human condition itself. He rejects the view that we might have a desire for meaning that the external world cannot fulfill (Albert Camus’ assumption). Instead, he proposes that the absurdity of a human’s life results from the necessity of the first person perspective with the serious application of its evaluative standards which clashes with our ability to “take a step back” (transcend our own point of view) and recognize that we are not able to appropriately defend our standards in a non-circular and non-arbitrary way. However, we are not able to stop taking our lives seriously.

The fear of living an absurd or meaningless life seems to be deeply ingrained in many human individuals. Artists from any field seek to increase the meaning of their lives by capturing and creating beauty. They try to contribute to projects of (lasting) value and seek to authentically express themselves. Looking at the fields of animal philosophy and cognitive sciences one could wonder whether this desire occurs in non-human animals as well.



Nagel, Thomas: The Absurd. In: The Journal of Philosophy, 1971, Vol. 68, No. 20, 716-727, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2024942?origin=JSTOR-pdf.