Collective Epistemic Responsibility: A Reply to Chris Dragos, Kristina Rolin

SERRC —  November 8, 2016 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Kristina Rolin, University of Helsinki, kristina.rolin@helsinki.fi

Rolin, Kristina. “Collective Epistemic Responsibility: A Reply to Chris Dragos.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 7-11.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ie

Please refer to:

collective_responsibility

Image credit: Frans de Wit, via flickr

I wish to thank Chris Dragos,[1] Silvia Tossut,[2] Brad Wray,[3] and Mark D. West[4] for discussing my work. This discussion gives me an opportunity to clarify the view I defended in “Science as Collective Knowledge.”[5] My main thesis was that scientific communities are capable of having collective knowledge. By collective knowledge, I meant “justified true belief or acceptance held or arrived at by groups as plural subjects.”[6] I assumed that scientific communities can have, if not collective beliefs, at least collective acceptances.[7] I assumed also that “belief or acceptance has to be justified in some sense to deserve to be called scientific.”[8] As Tossut (2016) points out, I did not claim that epistemic justification is a sufficient condition for knowledge.[9]

Epistemic Justification as Epistemic Responsibility

My analysis of collective scientific knowledge was built on a particular conception of epistemic justification: epistemic justification understood as epistemic responsibility. According to this conception, an agent is epistemically responsible in claiming that p when the agent provides sufficient evidence in support of p or adopts it with a defence commitment. What counts as sufficient evidence depends on the agent’s audience, its background assumptions and standards of evidence at any given time. A defence commitment means that the agent takes on a duty to defend or revise the claim whenever it is challenged with counter-evidence or some other kind of argument. Thus, epistemic responsibility does not require an agent to cite evidence in support of all knowledge claims. Insofar as knowledge claims are not challenged, the agent does not need to defend them. As Michael Williams explains, epistemic justification in this sense is “like innocence in a court of law: presumptive but in need of defence in the face of contrary evidence.”[10]

Building on Williams’s analysis of epistemic responsibility, I argued that a scientific community as a whole can be epistemically responsible for some knowledge claims, especially for assumptions which function as default entitlements in the community’s social practice of knowledge-seeking. I argued that a scientific community is epistemically responsible for its default entitlements when community members are jointly committed to defend them in case they are challenged in an appropriate way.[11] For a scientific community to be epistemically responsible for its default entitlements, it is not necessary that all or most of the members of the community are actually capable of defending them. Default entitlements do not need to be defended when they are not challenged. And when they are challenged, a scientific community can distribute the duties to defend them among its members so that those scientists who are capable of defending them respond to criticism on behalf of the whole community. I suggested that “a community’s default entitlements are often more properly understood as collective knowledge rather than as individual knowledge.”[12]

As a result of the insightful criticism of my argument, I have come to realize that my conception of epistemic justification as epistemic responsibility is in need of clarification and defence.[13] I have built my argument on Williams’s analysis of epistemic responsibility because I believe that it is a highly relevant conception of epistemic justification when we aim to understand science as a social practice of knowledge-seeking. I do not claim that epistemic responsibility is the only conception of epistemic justification. Like Williams, I believe that epistemic justification can be understood also as “adequate grounding.”[14] Whereas epistemic responsibility is focused on the question of when an agent is justified in claiming that p, the conception of epistemic justification as “adequate grounding” is concerned with the question of when the proposition p is justified. Williams uses also the term “personal justification” to distinguish epistemic responsibility from the conception of epistemic justification as “adequate grounding.”[15]

While epistemic responsibility is not the only conception of epistemic justification, I believe that it captures important aspects of epistemic justification. Williams argues that “by behaving in an epistemically responsible way, I increase the likelihood that the beliefs I form are true.”[16] I agree with Williams, and I wish to add that epistemic responsibility is needed also to make justice to a moral dimension in our knowledge-seeking practices. By being epistemically responsible towards other human beings, I show respect to them especially in their capacity as knowers. This is morally valuable even when my behaving in an epistemically responsible way does not lead me to have true beliefs.

Williams emphasizes that epistemic responsibility alone is not sufficient for knowledge; yet, he thinks that it is required for knowledge.[17] I argue that epistemic responsibility is required, if not for all knowledge, at least for scientific knowledge. Both individual scientists and research groups are expected to be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims to particular scientific communities. What counts as sufficient evidence and what assumptions they are allowed to take for granted, depends on what their communities are willing to accept without further inquiries or challenges. Even though some epistemic values may be shared by all scientific communities, the standards of evidence can vary from one scientific community to another.[18] While the standards are set by scientific communities, they are not beyond criticism. Standards may be criticized and transformed in reference to other standards, goals, and values held temporarily constant.[19]

As Heidi Grasswick argues, also scientific communities, and not only individual scientists, are sometimes expected to be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims to lay communities.[20] One advantage in my account of collective scientific knowledge is that it enables me to analyse what such a responsibility involves. Given my account, a scientific community as a whole is epistemically responsible to other communities when community members are jointly committed to be epistemically responsible to other communities. In the actual practice of science, this may mean that at least one member of the community is epistemically responsible on behalf of the whole community. Given this interpretation of collective epistemic responsibility, individual scientists are not burdened with more epistemic duties than they can reasonably be expected to carry out. When scientific communities are faced with challenges from lay communities, they can be epistemically responsible by distributing their epistemic duties among their members so that some community members engage some critics and some others some other critics.

On the Criticism of My View

Let me turn to the criticism of my view. Dragos argues that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge relies uncritically on the principle of autojustification.[21] Since I do not defend the principle of autojustification (J-Auto), it is not clear why we should prefer this principle to an alternative principle: the principle of allojustification (J-Allo). The two principles are defined as follows:

J-Auto: The possessor or proper subject of any knowledge that p must be the possessor or proper subject of all justifiers.[22]

J-Allo: The possessor or proper subject of any knowledge that p need not be the possessor or proper subject of all justifiers.[23]

In response to this criticism, I suggest that J-Auto is analyzed into two claims. One claim is that epistemic justification is a necessary condition for knowledge. Another claim is that for an agent to be epistemically justified in believing or accepting that p, the agent must be the possessor or proper subject of all justifiers required to defend p. While I have assumed the first claim, I have not assumed the second one.[24]

My analysis of collective scientific knowledge does not rely on the second claim because I do not claim that epistemic responsibility is the only conception of epistemic justification. I claim merely that it is a relevant conception of epistemic justification when we aim to understand science as a social practice of knowledge-seeking. For an agent to be epistemically responsible in believing or accepting that p, the agent must be capable of either providing sufficient evidence in support of p or defending p when it is challenged. This claim may look like the principle of autojustification but it is a different claim. It follows that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge is compatible with the view that there is another conception of epistemic justification which belongs to the category of allo-justification. Like Dragos, I welcome attempts to understand the role of trust and testimony in science.[25]

Dragos argues also that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge implies the problematic view that research groups cannot have collective knowledge.[26] The reason for this is that for a research group to be epistemically responsible for its knowledge claims, it is necessary that someone in the group is capable of defending the assumptions on which the group has relied. But according to Dragos, this is not possible because research groups have to rely on at least some assumptions that only someone outside the group is in a position to defend. It follows that research groups cannot be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims because they are not capable of defending all their assumptions on their own. It is always a larger social unit that has to bear epistemic responsibility for scientific knowledge.

In response to this criticism, I argue that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge is consistent with the view that research groups can be epistemically responsible for many knowledge claims. As Dragos points out, for a research group to be epistemically responsible for its knowledge claims, it is necessary that the group is capable of defending the assumptions on which it has relied. But unlike Dragos, I think that in many cases this requirement is feasible for research groups. Research groups do not always need to ask someone outside the group to help them address challenges to their assumptions. Sometimes research groups may fail to be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims because they have unwittingly relied on an assumption which they are not capable of defending. But I do not think that this scenario is as common as Dragos claims it to be. Also, a group is expected to defend an assumption only when the assumption is actually challenged in an appropriate way. In many cases, research groups are not asked to defend all their assumptions because their audiences accept the assumptions without further inquiries. It follows that research groups can be epistemically responsible for many knowledge claims. This conclusion is consistent with the view that there may be some other knowledge claims for which a larger social unit will have to bear epistemic responsibility.

Conclusion

In summary, I admit that “Science as Collective Knowledge” may have been too general a title for my 2008 article. But I still hold the view that scientific communities can be epistemically responsible for some knowledge claims. For example, they can be epistemically responsible for their default entitlements by distributing the obligations to defend these assumptions among their members when the assumptions are challenged. If scientific communities can be epistemically responsible for some knowledge claims, then they are candidates for having collective knowledge in at least one sense of the term “collective knowledge.” My analysis of collective knowledge involves the view that epistemic justification can be understood as epistemic responsibility.

References

Dragos, Chris. “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? Wray Vs. Rolin.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 5-6 (2016a): 611–23.

Dragos, Chris. “Justified Group Belief in Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016b): 6–12.

Gilbert, Margaret. “Collective Belief and Scientific Change.” In Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory, 37–49. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Grasswick, Heidi. “Scientific and Lay Communities: Earning Epistemic Trust through Knowledge Sharing.” Synthese 177, no. 3 (2010): 387–409.

Kuhn, Thomas. “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice.” In The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, 320–39. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Longino, Helen. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Rolin, Kristina. “Gender and Trust in Science.” Hypatia 17, no. 4 (2002): 95–118.

Rolin, Kristina. “Science as Collective Knowledge.” Cognitive Systems Research 9 (2008): 115–24.

Rolin, Kristina. “Values in Science: The Case of Scientific Collaboration.” Philosophy of Science 82, no. 2 (2015): 157–77.

Tossut, Silvia. 2016. “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? A Reply to Chris Dragos.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 18–21.

West, Mark D. “Organic Solidarity, Science and Group Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 1–11.

Williams, Michael. Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wray, K. Brad. “Collective Knowledge and Collective Justification.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 8 (2016): 24–27.

[1]. Dragos, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?” and “Justified Group Belief in Science.”

[2]. Tossut, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?”

[3]. Wray, “Collective Knowledge and Collective Justification.”

[4]. West, “Organic Solidarity, Science and Group Knowledge.”

[5]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge.”

[6]. Ibid., 115.

[7]. Gilbert, “Collective Belief and Scientific Change.”

[8]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge,” 116.

[9]. Tossut, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?”

[10]. Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 25.

[11]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge,” 121.

[12]. Ibid., 122.

[13]. Dragos, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?” and “Justified Group Belief in Science.”

[14]. Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 22.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid., 23.

[18]. Kuhn, The Essential Tension, 321.

[19]. Longino, The Fate of Knowledge, 131.

[20]. Grasswick, “Scientific and Lay Communities.”

[21]. Dragos, ”Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?,” 615.

[22]. Dragos, ”Justified Group Belief in Science,” 7.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge,” 116.

[25]. See e.g. Rolin, “Gender and Trust in Science” and “Values in Science.”

[26]. Dragos, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?,” 616.

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