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Author Information: Seungbae Park, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology,

Park, Seungbae. “Philosophers and Scientists are Social Epistemic Agents.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 31-40.

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The example is from the regime of Hosni Mubarak, but these were the best photos the Digital Editor could find in Creative Commons when he was uploading the piece.

The style of examples common to epistemology, whether social or not, are often innocuous, ordinary situation. But the most critical uses and misuses of knowledge and belief remain all-too-ordinary situations already. If scepticism about our powers to know and believe hold – or are at least held sufficiently – then the most desperate political prisoner has lost her last glimmer of hope. Truth.
Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr / Creative Commons


In this paper, I reply to Markus Arnold’s comment and Amanda Bryant’s comment on my work “Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability be an Image of Science?” in Moti Mizrahi’s edited collection, The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?.

Arnold argues that there is a gap between the editor’s expressed goal and the actual content of the book. Mizrahi states in the introduction that his book aims to increase “our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor” (2018: 7). Arnold objects that it is “not obvious how the strong emphasis on discounting Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis in the first part of the book should lead to a better understanding of science as a social practice” (2018: 46). The first part of the volume includes my work. Admittedly, my work does not explicitly and directly state how it increases our understanding of science as a social enterprise.

Knowledge and Agreement

According to Arnold, an important meaning of incommensurability is “the decision after a long and futile debate to end any further communication as a waste of time since no agreement can be reached,” and it is this “meaning, describing a social phenomenon, which is very common in science” (Arnold, 2018: 46). Arnold has in mind Kuhn’s claim that a scientific revolution is completed not when opposing parties reach an agreement through rational argumentations but when the advocates of the old paradigm die of old age, which means that they do not give up on their paradigm until they die.

I previously argued that given that most recent past paradigms coincide with present paradigms, most present paradigms will also coincide with future paradigms, and hence “taxonomic incommensurability will rarely arise in the future, as it has rarely arisen in the recent past” (Park, 2018: 70). My argument entails that scientists’ decision to end further communications with their opponents has been and will be rare, i.e., such a social phenomenon has been and will be rare.

On my account, the opposite social phenomenon has been and will rather be very common, viz., scientists keep communicating with each other to reach an agreement. Thus, my previous contention about the frequency of scientific revolutions increases our understanding of science as a social enterprise.

Let me now turn to Bryant’s comment on my criticism against Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science. Kuhn (1962/1970, 172–173) draws an analogy between the development of science and the evolution of organisms. According to evolutionary theory, organisms do not evolve towards a goal. Similarly, Kuhn argues, science does not develop towards truths. The kinetic theory of heat, for example, is no closer to the truth than the caloric theory of heat is, just as we are no closer to some evolutionary goal than our ancestors were. He claims that this analogy is “very nearly perfect” (1962/1970, 172).

My objection (2018a: 64–66) was that it is self-defeating for Kuhn to use evolutionary theory to justify his philosophical claim about the development of science that present paradigms will be replaced by incommensurable future paradigms. His philosophical view entails that evolutionary theory will be superseded by an incommensurable alternative, and hence evolutionary theory is not trustworthy. Since his philosophical view relies on this untrustworthy theory, it is also untrustworthy, i.e., we ought to reject his philosophical view that present paradigms will be displaced by incommensurable future paradigms.

Bryant replies that “Kuhn could adopt the language of a paradigm (for the purposes of drawing an analogy, no less!) without committing to the literal truth of that paradigm” (2018: 3). On her account, Kuhn could have used the language of evolutionary theory without believing that evolutionary theory is true.

Can We Speak a Truth Without Having to Believe It True?

Bryant’s defense of Kuhn’s position is brilliant. Kuhn would have responded exactly as she has, if he had been exposed to my criticism above. In fact, it is a common view among many philosophers of science that we can adopt the language of a scientific theory without committing to the truth of it.

Bas van Fraassen, for example, states that “acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate” (1980: 12). He also states that if “the acceptance is at all strong, it is exhibited in the person’s assumption of the role of explainer” (1980: 12). These sentences indicate that according to van Fraassen, we can invoke a scientific theory for the purpose of explaining phenomena without committing to the truth of it. Rasmus Winther (2009: 376), Gregory Dawes (2013: 68), and Finnur Dellsén (2016: 11) agree with van Fraassen on this account.

I have been pondering this issue for the past several years. The more I reflect upon it, however, the more I am convinced that it is problematic to use the language of a scientific theory without committing to the truth of it. This thesis would be provocative and objectionable to many philosophers, especially to scientific antirealists. So I invite them to consider the following two thought experiments.

First, imagine that an atheist uses the language of Christianity without committing to the truth of it (Park, 2015: 227, 2017a: 60). He is a televangelist, saying on TV, “If you worship God, you’ll go to heaven.” He converts millions of TV viewers into Christianity. As a result, his church flourishes, and he makes millions of dollars a year. To his surprise, however, his followers discover that he is an atheist.

They request him to explain how he could speak as if he were a Christian when he is an atheist. He replies that he can use the language of Christianity without believing that it conveys truths, just as scientific antirealists can use the language of a scientific theory without believing that it conveys the truth.

Second, imagine that scientific realists, who believe that our best scientific theories are true, adopts Kuhn’s philosophical language without committing to Kuhn’s view of science. They say, as Kuhn does, “Successive paradigms are incommensurable, so present and future scientists would not be able to communicate with each other.” Kuhn requests them to explain how they could speak as if they were Kuhnians when they are not Kuhnians. They reply that they can adopt his philosophical language without committing to his view of science, just as scientific antirealists can adopt the language of a scientific theory without committing to the truth of it.

The foregoing two thought experiments are intended to be reductio ad absurdum. That is, my reasoning is that if it is reasonable for scientific antirealists to speak the language of a scientific theory without committing to the truth of it, it should also be reasonable for the atheist to speak the language of Christianity and for scientific realists to speak Kuhn’s philosophical language. It is, however, unreasonable for them to do so.

Let me now diagnose the problems with the atheist’s speech acts and scientific realists’ speech acts. The atheist’s speech acts go contrary to his belief that God does not exist, and scientific realists’ speech acts go contrary to their belief that our best scientific theories are true. As a result, the atheist’s speech acts mislead his followers into believing that he is Christian. The scientific realists’ speech acts mislead their hearers into believing that they are Kuhnians.

Moore’s Paradox

Such speech acts raise an interesting philosophical issue. Imagine that someone says, “Snow is white, but I don’t believe snow is white.” The assertion of such a sentence involves Moore’s paradox. Moore’s paradox arises when we say a sentence of the form, “P, but I don’t believe p” (Moore, 1993: 207–212). We can push the atheist above to be caught in Moore’s paradox. Imagine that he says, “If you worship God, you’ll go to heaven.” We request him to declare whether he believes or not what he just said. He declares, “I don’t believe if you worship God, you’ll go to heaven.” As a result, he is caught in Moore’s paradox, and he only puzzles his audience.

The same is true of the scientific realists above. Imagine that they say, “Successive paradigms are incommensurable, so present and future scientists would not be able to communicate with each other.” We request them to declare whether they believe or not what they just said. They declare, “I don’t believe successive paradigms are incommensurable, so present and future scientists would not be able to communicate with each other.” As a result, they are caught in Moore’s paradox, and they only puzzle their audience.

Kuhn would also be caught in Moore’s paradox if he draws the analogy between the development of science and the evolution of organisms without committing to the truth of evolutionary theory, pace Bryant. Imagine that Kuhn says, “Organisms don’t evolve towards a goal. Similarly, science doesn’t develop towards truths. I, however, don’t believe organisms don’t evolve towards a goal.” He says, “Organisms don’t evolve towards a goal. Similarly, science doesn’t develop towards truths” in order to draw the analogy between the development of science and the evolution of organisms. He says, “I, however, don’t believe organisms don’t evolve towards a goal,” in order to express his refusal to believe that evolutionary theory is true. It is, however, a Moorean sentence: “Organisms don’t evolve towards a goal. I, however, don’t believe organisms don’t evolve towards a goal.” The assertion of such a sentence gives rise to Moore’s paradox.

Scientific antirealists would also be caught in Moore’s paradox, if they explain phenomena in terms of a scientific theory without committing to the truth of it, pace van Fraassen. Imagine that scientific antirealists say, “The space between two galaxies expands because dark energy exists between them, but I don’t believe that dark energy exists between two galaxies.” They say, “The space between two galaxies expands because dark energy exists between them,” in order to explain why the space between galaxies expands.

They add, “I don’t believe that dark energy exists between two galaxies,” in order to express their refusal to commit to the truth of the theoretical claim that dark energy exists. It is, however, a Moorean sentence: “The space between two galaxies expands because dark energy exists between them, but I don’t believe that dark energy exists between two galaxies.” Asserting such a sentence will only puzzle their audience. Consequently, Moore’s paradox bars scientific antirealists from invoking scientific theories to explain phenomena (Park, 2017b: 383, 2018b: Section 4).

Researchers on Moore’s paradox believe that “contradiction is at the heart of the absurdity of saying a Moorean sentence, but it is not obvious wherein contradiction lies” (Park, 2014: 345). Park (2014: 345) argues that when you say, “Snow is white,” your audience believe that you believe that snow is white. Their belief that you believe that snow is white contradicts the second conjunct of your Moorean sentence that you do not believe that snow is white.

Thus, the contradiction lies in your audience’s belief and the second conjunct of your Moorean sentence. The present paper does not aim to flesh out and defend this view of wherein lies the contradiction. It rather aims to show that Moore’s paradox prevents us from using the language of a scientific theory without committing to the truth of it, pace Bryant and van Fraassen.

The Real Consequences of Speaking What You Don’t Believe

Set Moore’s paradox aside. Let me raise another objection to Bryant and van Fraassen. Imagine that Kuhn encounters a philosopher of mind. The philosopher of mind asserts, “A mental state is reducible to a brain state.” Kuhn realizes that the philosopher of mind espouses the identity theory of mind, but he knows that the identity theory of mind has already been refuted by the multiple realizability argument. So he brings up the multiple realizability argument to the philosopher of mind. The philosopher of mind is persuaded of the multiple realizability argument and admits that the identity theory is not tenable.

To Kuhn’s surprise, however, the philosopher of mind claims that when he said, “A mental state is reducible to a brain state,” he spoke the language of the identity theory without committing to the truth of it, so his position is not refuted by Kuhn. Note that the philosopher of mind escapes the refutation of his position by saying that he did not believe what he stated. It is also reasonable for the philosopher of mind to escape the refutation of his position by saying that he did not believe what he stated, if it is reasonable for Kuhn to escape the refutation of his position by saying that he did not believe what he stated. Kuhn would think that it is not reasonable for the philosopher of mind to do so.

Kuhn, however, might bite the bullet, saying that it is reasonable for the philosopher of mind to do so. The strategy to avoid the refutation, Kuhn might continue, only reveals that the identity theory was not his position after all. Evaluating arguments does not require that we identify the beliefs of the authors of arguments. In philosophy, we only need to care about whether arguments are valid or invalid, sound or unsound, strong or weak, and so on.

Speculating about what beliefs the authors of arguments hold as a way of evaluating arguments is to implicitly rely on an argument from authority, i.e., it is to think as though the authors’ beliefs determine the strength of arguments rather than the form and content of arguments do.

We, however, need to consider under what conditions we accept the conclusion of an argument in general. We accept it, when premises are plausible and when the conclusion follows from the premises. We can tell whether the conclusion follows from the premises or not without the author’s belief that it does. In many cases, however, we cannot tell whether premises are plausible or not without the author’s belief that they are.

Imagine, for example, that a witness states in court that a defendant is guilty because the defendant was in the crime scene. The judge can tell whether the conclusion follows from the premise or not without the witness’s belief that it does. The judge, however, cannot tell whether the premise is plausible or not without the witness’s belief that it is. Imagine that the witness says that the defendant is guilty because the defendant was in the crime scene, but that the witness declares that he does not believe that the defendant was in the crime scene. Since the witness does not believe that the premise is true, the judge has no reason to believe that it is true. It is unreasonable for the judge to evaluate the witness’s argument independently of whether the witness believes or not that the premise is true.

In a nutshell, an argument loses its persuasive force, if the author of the argument does not believe that premises are true. Thus, if you aim to convince your audience that your argument is cogent, you should believe yourself that the premises are true. If you declare that you do not believe that the premises are true, your audience will ask you some disconcerting questions: “If you don’t, why should I believe what you don’t? How can you say to me what you don’t believe? Do you expect me to believe what you don’t?” (Park, 2018b: Section 4).

In case you still think that it is harmless and legitimate to speak what you do not believe, I invite you to imagine that your political rival commits murder to frame you. A false charge is brought to you, and you are tried in court. The prosecutor has a strong indictment against you. You state vehemently that you did not commit murder. You, however, have no physical evidence supporting your statement. Furthermore, you are well-known as a person who speaks vehemently what you do not believe. Not surprisingly, the judge issues a death sentence on you, thinking that you are merely speaking the language of the innocent. The point of this sad story is that speaking what you do not believe may result in a tragedy in certain cases.

A Solution With a Prestigious Inspiration

Let me now turn to a slightly different, but related, issue. Under what condition can I refute your belief when you speak contrary to what you believe? I can do it only when I have direct access to your doxastic states, i.e., only when I can identify your beliefs without the mediation of your language. It is not enough for me to interpret your language correctly and present powerful evidence against what your language conveys.

After all, whenever I present such evidence to you, you will escape the refutation of what you stated simply by saying that you did not believe what you stated. Thus, Bryant’s defense of Kuhn’s position from my criticism above amounts to imposing an excessively high epistemic standard on Kuhn’s opponents. After all, his opponents do not have direct access to his doxastic states.

In this context, it is useful to be reminded of the epistemic imperative: “Act only on an epistemic maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal one” (Park, 2018c: 3). Consider the maxim “Escape the refutation of your position by saying you didn’t believe what you stated.” If you cannot will this maxim to become a universal one, you ought not to act on it yourself. It is immoral for you to act on the maxim despite the fact that you cannot will it to become a universal maxim. Thus, the epistemic imperative can be invoked to argue that Kuhn ought not to use the language of evolutionary theory without committing to the truth of it, pace Bryant.

Let me now raise a slightly different, although related, issue. Recall that according to Bryant, Kuhn could adopt the language of evolutionary theory without committing to the truth of it. Admittedly, there is an epistemic advantage of not committing to the truth of evolutionary theory on Kuhn’s part. The advantage is that he might avoid the risk of forming a false belief regarding evolutionary theory. Yet, he can stick to his philosophical account of science according to which science does not develop towards truths, and current scientific theories will be supplanted by incommensurable alternatives.

There is, however, an epistemic disadvantage of not committing to the truth of a scientific theory. Imagine that Kuhn is not only a philosopher and historian of science but also a scientist. He has worked hard for several decades to solve a scientific problem that has been plaguing an old scientific theory. Finally, he hits upon a great scientific theory that handles the recalcitrant problem. His scientific colleagues reject the old scientific theory and accept his new scientific theory, i.e., a scientific revolution occurs.

He becomes famous not only among scientists but also among the general public. He is so excited about his new scientific theory that he believes that it is true. Some philosophers, however, come along and dispirit him by saying that they do not believe that his new theory is true, and that they do not even believe that it is closer to the truth than its predecessor was. Kuhn protests that his new theory has theoretical virtues, such as accuracy, simplicity, and fruitfulness. Not impressed by these virtues, however, the philosophers reply that science does not develop towards truths, and that his theory will be displaced by an incommensurable alternative. They were exposed to Kuhn’s philosophical account of science!

Epistemic Reciprocation

They have adopted a philosophical position called epistemic reciprocalism according to which “we ought to treat our epistemic colleagues, as they treat their epistemic agents” (Park, 2017a: 57). Epistemic reciprocalists are scientific antirealists’ true adversaries. Scientific antirealists refuse to believe that their epistemic colleagues’ scientific theories are true for fear that they might form false beliefs.

In return, epistemic reciprocalists refuse to believe that scientific antirealists’ positive theories are true for fear that they might form false beliefs. We, as epistemic agents, are not only interested in avoiding false beliefs but also in propagating “to others our own theories which we are confident about” (Park, 2017a: 58). Scientific antirealists achieve the first epistemic goal at the cost of the second epistemic goal.

Epistemic reciprocalism is built upon the foundation of social epistemology, which claims that we are not asocial epistemic agents but social epistemic agents. Social epistemic agents are those who interact with each other over the matters of what to believe and what not to believe. So they take into account how their interlocutors treat their epistemic colleagues before taking epistemic attitudes towards their interlocutors’ positive theories.

Let me now turn to another of Bryant’s defenses of Kuhn’s position. She says that it is not clear that the analogy between the evolution of organisms and the development of science is integral to Kuhn’s account. Kuhn could “have ascribed the same characteristics to theory change without referring to evolutionary theory at all” (Bryant, 2018: 3). In other words, Kuhn’s contention that science does not develop towards truths rises or falls independently of the analogy between the development of science and the evolution of organisms. Again, this defense of Kuhn’s position is brilliant.

Consider, however, that the development of science is analogous to the evolution of organisms, regardless of whether Kuhn makes use of the analogy to defend his philosophical account of science or not, and that the fact that they are analogous is a strike against Kuhn’s philosophical account of science. Suppose that Kuhn believes that science does not develop towards truths, but that he does not believe that organisms do not evolve towards a goal, despite the fact that the development of science is analogous to the evolution of organisms.

An immediate objection to his position is that it is not clear on what grounds he embraces the philosophical claim about science, but not the scientific claim about organisms, when the two claims parallel each other. It is ad hoc merely to suggest that the scientific claim is untrustworthy, but that the philosophical claim is trustworthy. What is so untrustworthy about the scientific claim, but so trustworthy about the philosophical claim? It would be difficult to answer these questions because the development of science and the evolution of organisms are similar to each other.

A moral is that if philosophers reject our best scientific theories, they cannot make philosophical claims that are similar to what our best scientific theories assert. In general, the more philosophers reject scientific claims, the more impoverished their philosophical positions will be, and the heavier their burdens will be to prove that their philosophical claims are dissimilar to the scientific claims that they reject.

Moreover, it is not clear what Kuhn could say to scientists who take the opposite position in response to him. They believe that organisms do not evolve towards a goal, but refuse to believe that science does not develop towards truths. To go further, they trust scientific claims, but distrust philosophical claims. They protest that it is a manifestation of philosophical arrogance to suppose that philosophical claims are worthy of beliefs, but scientific claims are not.

This possible response to Kuhn reminds us of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. Philosophers ought to treat scientists as they want to be treated, concerning epistemic matters. Suppose that a scientific claim is similar to a philosophical claim. If philosophers do not want scientists to hold a double standard with respect to the scientific and philosophical claims, philosophers should not hold a double standard with respect to them.

There “is no reason for thinking that the Golden Rule ranges over moral matters, but not over epistemic matters” (Park, 2018d: 77–78). Again, we are not asocial epistemic agents but social epistemic agents. As such, we ought to behave in accordance with the epistemic norms governing the behavior of social epistemic agents.

Finally, the present paper is intended to be critical of Kuhn’s philosophy of science while enshrining his insight that science is a social enterprise, and that scientists are social epistemic agents. I appealed to Moore’s paradox, epistemic reciprocalism, the epistemic imperative, and the Golden Rule in order to undermine Bryant’s defenses of Kuhn’s position from my criticism. All these theoretical resources can be used to increase our understanding of science as a social endeavor. Let me add to Kuhn’s insight that philosophers are also social epistemic agents.

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Arnold, Markus. “Is There Anything Wrong with Thomas Kuhn?”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 42–47.

Byrant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1–7.

Dawes, Gregory. “Belief is Not the Issue: A Defence of Inference to the Best Explanation”, Ratio: An International Journal of Analytic Philosophy 26, no. 1 (2013): 62–78.

Dellsén, Finnur. “Understanding without Justification or Belief”, Ratio: An International Journal of Analytic Philosophy (2016). DOI: 10.1111/rati.12134.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. The University of Chicago Press, (1962/1970).

Mizrahi, Moti. “Introduction”, In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Moti Mizrahi (ed.), London: Rowman & Littlefield, (2018): 1–22.

Moore, George. “Moore’s Paradox”, In G.E. Moore: Selected Writings. Baldwin, Thomas (ed.), London: Routledge, (1993).

Park, Seungbae. “On the Relationship between Speech Acts and Psychological States”, Pragmatics and Cognition 22, no. 3 (2014): 340–351.

Park, Seungbae. “Accepting Our Best Scientific Theories”, Filosofija. Sociologija 26, no. 3 (2015): 218–227.

Park, Seungbae. “Defense of Epistemic Reciprocalism”, Filosofija. Sociologija 28, no. 1 (2017a): 56–64.

Park, Seungbae. “Understanding without Justification and Belief?” Principia: An International Journal of Epistemology 21, no. 3 (2017b): 379–389.

Park, Seungbae. “Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability Be an Image of Science?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Moti Mizrahi (ed.), London: Rowman & Littlefield, (2018a): 61–74.

Park, Seungbae. “Should Scientists Embrace Scientific Realism or Antirealism?”, Philosophical Forum (2018b): (to be assigned).

Park, Seungbae. “In Defense of the Epistemic Imperative”, Axiomathes (2018c). DOI:

Park, Seungbae. “The Pessimistic Induction and the Golden Rule”, Problemos 93 (2018d): 70–80.

van Fraassen, Bas. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1980).

Winther, Rasmus. “A Dialogue”, Metascience 18 (2009): 370–379.

Author Information: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida,

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

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Image credit: Oxford Univerity Press

Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief
Linda Zagzebski
Oxford Univerity Press (reprint 2015)
296 pp.

Like with her celebrated Virtues of the Mind, Linda Zagzebski again examines the application of concepts familiar in a different normative domain to the epistemic domain. In this case, the connection is with social and political philosophy and with the concepts of authority and autonomy in particular. The book covers a broad range of contemporary epistemological topics, attempting to gain insights from those is social and political philosophy. In what follows we will briefly summarize the book and raise several points of criticism.

Analyzing the Chapters

Zagzebski makes her own position of the book clear from the outset—that subjects should indeed take beliefs on the authority of others, and in fact must do so to act rationally. However, before this argument is given, she insists that the reader understand why there is such a “strong proclivity” to denying this argument (6). In Chapter 1, Zagzebski follows the historical progression of thought that led to this cultural pattern, arguing that it has led to our modern societies to have a strong emphasis on autonomy and egalitarianism, ultimately diminishing the value of authority outside of oneself.

In chapter 2, Zagzebski develops her account of trust. She defines “trust” as a combination of epistemic, affective, and behavioral components that lead us to believe that our epistemic faculties will get us to the truth, feel trusting towards them in that respect, and treat them respectively (37-8). She argues that this trust is rational upon reflection, relying on her understanding of what it means to be rational, “to do a better job of what we do in any case—what our faculties do naturally” (30). According to her, we naturally try to resolve dissonance, where dissonance equates to internal conflict between a person’s mental states. She concludes that epistemic self-trust is the most rational response to dissonance, including the one produced upon discovery of epistemic circularity: the problem that one has no way of telling whether one’s epistemic faculties are reliably accurate without depending on those same faculties.

Zagzebski moves toward the substance of her argument in her third chapter. She argues that considering how one’s faculties are bound up with both the desire for truth and the belief that they can access the truth, commits one to trusting the faculties of others. This leads into Zagzebski’s principle of “epistemic universalism,” which asserts that another person having some belief itself is a prima facie reason to believe it, given that the other person’s epistemic faculties are in order and that they are epistemically conscientious.

Zagzeski expands the circle of trust to include emotions in Chapter 4. She argues that we have the need to trust in our emotional dispositions, in particular the emotion of admiration, that will then give us another foundational reason for epistemic trust in others (75). In regards to our natural emotion dispositions she says that “we need basic trust in the tendency of our emotion dispositions to produce fitting emotions for the same reason we need basic trust in the tendency of our epistemic faculties to produce true beliefs” (83). It is from this emotion of admiration that we can then conscientiously trust in other epistemic exemplars.

In chapter 5, Zagzebski argues that authority in the epistemic realm is justified. Based on Joseph Raz’s account of political authority, she defines authority as a “normative power that generates reasons for others to do or believe something preemptively” (102). Here a preemptive reason is one that replaces other reasons the subject has and is not simply added to them. Zagzebski proposes an epistemic analogue of Raz’s Preemption Thesis, which states that the fact that an authority has a belief p is a preemptive reason for me to believe p (107). She also formulates epistemic analogues for Raz’s Normal Justification Thesis in order to justify taking a belief on epistemic authority. Zagzebski proposes that the authority of another person’s belief is justified for me when I conscientiously judge that I am more likely to form a true belief and avoid a false belief, or that I am more likely to form a belief that survives my conscientious self-reflection, if I believe what the authority believes than if I try to figure out what to believe myself (110-1).

In the sixth chapter, Zagzebski focuses on the concept of testimony as it relates to epistemic authority, advocating for a trust-model of testimony. On her account, testimony is a contractual “telling” which occurs between a teller and hearer, in which both sides have responsibilities. The teller implicitly requests the hearer’s trust and assumes the associated responsibility. The hearer also has expectations of the teller, especially when a future action is carried out according to the content of the teller’s testimony. Because of this contractual nature, the standard of conscientiousness is higher in testimony than in the general formation of a belief. The authority of testimony is justified both by the fact that believing the testimony will more likely get the truth than self-reliance, as well as the fact that beliefs obtained through testimony are more likely to survive self-reflection than those formed through self-reliance.

Zagzebski turns her attention to epistemic communities in Chapter 7. She argues that epistemic authority in communities can be justified by one’s conscientious judgment that one is more likely to believe the truth, or to get a belief that will survive one’s self-reflection if one believes what “We” (the community) believe rather than if one tries to figure out what to believe by oneself in a way that is independent of “Us.” Here communities are seen as an extended self. Zagzebski would argue that communally acquired beliefs are more likely to survive communal reflection, which follows from her “extended self” argument. Thus, as long as one accepts one’s community as an extended self, one can in this way acquire reasons to believe on the authority of one’s community.

In chapter 8, Zagzebski examines moral epistemic authority and its limitations. Zagzebski sees no reason to deny that there are epistemic exemplars in the moral domain, considering the rejection of moral truth and egalitarianism as possible reasons for rejecting moral authority. She argues that testimony is not an adequate model for most moral learning because of two limitations: (1) testimony lacks motivational force and (2) it does not offer understanding. According to her, the way in which one can get a moral belief from another person has to do with the emotion that grounds such moral judgment. She claims that testimony is able to convey conceptual judgment and relevant similarities to persons or situations that elicit emotional response, but this is not sufficient to produce the emotional response itself (172). It follows then, she argues, that “I do not take a belief on authority; I take an emotion on authority, and the emotion is the ground for my moral belief” (174). The argument gets extended in the following chapter to religious authorities. Applying her earlier argument to this context, she defends the claim that individuals often conscientiously judge that if they believe in accordance with their religious community they will do better, and so often individuals are justified in deferring to their religious community.

In Chapter 10, Zagzebski turns to the contemporary debate concerning peer disagreement. As she diagnoses the debate, it is primarily a conflict between the competing values of egalitarianism and self-reliance. Zagzebski sees steadfast views of disagreement overvaluing self-reliance and stronger conciliatory views overvaluing egalitarianism, and finds both mistaken. Her own take on the debate is to construe peer disagreement as a conflict within self-trust, where one finds dissonance amongst the things that she trusts (her opinion, her peer’s opinion, etc.). Given this, and her preceding argument, Zagzebski’s recommendation is to resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what one trusts the most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. There is thus no universal response to disagreement. How any given disagreement is to be handled will depend upon the particular details of the case, in particular, which psychic states the subject trusts the most. For instance, one’s trust in a particular belief may be stronger than one’s trust in what appears to be evidence to the contrary, in which case it would be rational to resolve the dissonance while maintaining one’s belief.

In the final chapter of Epistemic Authority, the author primarily seeks to elucidate her notion of autonomy, ultimately to defend the claim that autonomy is not compromised by her model of epistemic authority. Autonomy is the primary property and function of Zagzebski’s “executive self,” which seeks to eliminate psychic dissonance through self-reflection. Zagzebski claims that conscientious judgment and self-reflection are the most reliable ways of avoiding epistemic dissonance —that being conscientious is the best one can do. She maintains that we should trust in the connection between rationality (as manifest in the act of conscientious self-reflection) and actually being right, because self-reflection is the only way we can assess if our beliefs have survived (which in turn is the only way we can get the truth).

Assessing Epistemic Authority

We turn now to a critical assessment of the book.

One general concern is with Zagzebski’s account of rationality and epistemic justification, which is central to her overall argument. She claims that, “rationality is a property we have when we do what we do naturally, only we do a better job of it” (30), and of central importance here is our natural desire to achieve a harmonious self. (31) Dissonance amongst our psychic states (beliefs, desires, emotions, etc.) is thus to be avoided, and a conscientious judgment about what states will harmoniously survive our self-reflection is what justifies those states. A problem for this account is that it is not sufficiently truth connected.

Zagzebski attempts to adequately connect her account to truth through the achievement of psychic harmony. She claims that, “the ultimate test of whether my faculties have succeeded in fitting their objects is that they fit each other.” (230) Such a coherentist account, however, is fraught with well-known problems. There are many ways of having harmonious states that are nothing close to truth conducive. The problem comes from the fact that harmony can be achieved in more than one way. In fact, any state can be protected so long as one is able to make accommodations elsewhere. Zagzebski recognizes this fact, and claims that some ways of resolving dissonance are better than others, but these preferential ways are simply those that one conscientiously judges to not create future dissonance. Such an account simply doubles down on trusting harmony and can be seen to give the wrong verdicts.

For instance, consider a father whose son is away at war. Suppose that the father then is given a substantial body of information that his son has been killed. However, the father simply cannot come to believe that his son has died. It is psychologically impossible for him, and he recognizes this fact. In terms of planning his psychic future then the belief that his son is alive will clearly be part of the picture. He can be certain that this state will survive his reflection (even his conscientious reflection) since he recognizes it to be psychologically immovable. Thus, his only paths to harmony are to distrust and abandon all states in conflict with that belief. It is apparent, however, that such a course of action is not to be recommended, and the remaining belief that his son is well is not justified for him. Sometimes, doing one’s best is not good enough. This holds in epistemology as well. While the father ought not be faulted for his belief, it is not justified for him.

A related issue concerns the role of reasons on Zagzebski’s account. From the outset, Zagzebski’s account centers around trust. The motivation for this seems to be that there is no non-circular defense of the reliability of one’s faculties. However, it is not clear what Zagzebski makes of such epistemic circularity. It might be thought that it is implied to be defective, but if so, it would be nice to hear more about the problem since many epistemologists have defended some kind of circularity. Adding to the confusion, however, is Zagzebski’s claim that she, and others, have “strong circular reasons to trust her epistemic faculties” (93). If such circular justification is possible, then the motivation for the role of trust is diminished. In addition, a large portion of the book is dedicated to arguments that individuals have various kinds of prima facie reasons (i.e. to believe what others believe, to trust others as I trust myself, to trust those who are conscientious).

While the arguments for these principles are quite plausible, there are several reasons to be unsatisfied. First, missing from the account is anything about the strength of these reasons or what kind of considerations would defeat these reasons. Without this further information, it is unclear what to make of these reasons and how they affect our overall outlook. Second, it is difficult to see what role these reasons can play in Zagzebski’s overall account of rationality and justification. Since, for her, rationality and justification are a matter of one’s conscientious judgments, the role of reasons seems to drop out entirely.

One’s reasons may influence their conscientious judgments, but they needn’t, and when one’s conscientious judgments go against their reasons, on Zagzebski’s view they ought to go with their judgment. For instance, in applying her account to the epistemic significance of disagreement, Zagzebski’s proposal is to resolve the dissonance resulting from discovered disagreement in accordance with what one conscientiously accords the most trust. However, on her account, significant errors regarding what one conscientiously trusts have no role to play in terms of what the subject is justified in believing. Many will see this as a significant cost since misplaced trust is not without epistemic consequences. A final concern with Zagzebski’s account of reasons concerns her preemption thesis.

Zagzebksi claims that, “the fact that the authority has a belief p is a reason for me to believe p that replaces my other reasons relevant to believing p and is not simply added to them” (107). This thesis raises some questions (i.e. where do those reasons go and can they ever return?) as well as some problems. One problem concerns ability. It is unclear how one would be able to comply with this principle and replace their current reasons. A deeper problem, however, concerns the consequences of compliance. If one looses their own reasons on an issue, they could lose information critical to both the future evaluation of the putative authority and the relevant claim. This seems to allow for a dangerous way for a putative authority to maintain its authority because the other reasons in the domain have been replaced and are no longer relevant.

Zagzebski also fails to consider cases in which an epistemic authority abuses his/her authoritative status. For instance, a noticeable gap in the book is the lack of attention paid to the problem of epistemic injustice. Perhaps even more worrisome is that Zagzebski’s account appears to actually exacerbate the problem of epistemic injustice. Prejudices can be, and often are, unintended. That is to say that a prejudiced person is likely unable to recognize his/her own prejudices. Further, biases are sticky—they don’t change easily.

Given all of this, it appears that the best way to avoid future dissonance is by adjusting the states that conflict with the biases. While such and accommodation of biases might be the most effective route to harmony, it is surely not the rational course of action. When biases survive reflection, the subject’s conscientious judgment is informed by prejudices that are both unfair and unfounded. Thus, Zagzebski’s account can be both epistemically and morally defective. Epistemically, because the hearer would miss out on a truth that, according to Zagzebski, he/she is naturally interested in acquiring (33), and morally, because an epistemic injustice could be inflicted on a person/community as a result. The apparent rational survival of biases affects our ability to accurately trust others and recognize epistemic authorities.

This problem only seems to get worse when applied to epistemic communities. Consider intergroup bias and groupthink—a community is very likely to acquire and entrench beliefs that confirm the community’s group identity, while simultaneously believing that it is thinking conscientiously. The epistemic opacity which was concerning at the individual level is only aggravated at the community level.

For Zagzebski, the community itself was formed out of chains of individual conscientious judgments, meaning that both individual and group distortions are compounded upon one another in any given community. If the gender bias survives a community’s reflection, then, under Zagzebski’s account, the community could be justified in trusting the belief that a female scientist is distrustful even when there is evidence against such belief and/or against the bias itself. This would lead to community reinforcement and distancing from others given that the community would trust the way in which they acquire beliefs (which includes trusting the bias even when they fail to recognize it) and distrust those communities that acquire beliefs in a way they don’t trust (without the bias). This appears to be highly problematic.

Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority will no doubt play a role in shaping a number of the contemporary epistemological debates. Her connections drawn to political philosophy provide a novel way of viewing a number of epistemological problems. While we find a number of problems with Zagzebki’s final account, Epistemic Authority will be of value for anyone interested in engaging in these debates.

Author Information: Jason M. Pittman, Capitol Technology University,

Pittman, Jason M. “Trust and Transhumanism: An Analysis of the Boundaries of Zero-Knowledge Proof and Technologically Mediated Authentication.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 21-29.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQu, via flickr


Zero-knowledge proof serves as the fundamental basis for technological concepts of trust. The most familiar applied solution of technological trust is authentication (human-to-machine and machine-to-machine), most typically a simple password scheme. Further, by extension, much of society-generated knowledge presupposes the immutability of such a proof system when ontologically considering (a) the verification of knowing and (b) the amount of knowledge required to know. In this work, I argue that the zero-knowledge proof underlying technological trust may cease to be viable upon realization of partial transhumanism in the form of embedded nanotechnology. Consequently, existing normative social components of knowledge—chiefly, verification and transmission—may be undermined. In response, I offer recommendations on potential society-centric remedies in partial trans-humanistic technologically mediated realities with the goal of preserving technological trust.

Password based authentication features prominently in daily life. For many us, authentication is a ritual repeated many times on any given day as we enter a username and password into various computing systems. In fact, research (Florêncio & Herley, 2007; Sasse, Steves, Krol, & Chisnell, 2014) revealed that we, on average, enter approximately eight different username and password combinations as many as 23 times a day. The number of times a computing system authenticates to another system is even more frequent. Simply put, authentication is normative in modern, technologically mediated life.

Indeed, authentication has been the normal modality of establishing trust within the context of technology (and, by extension, technology mediated knowledge) for several decades. Over the course of these decades, researchers have uncovered a myriad of flaws in specific manifestations of authentication—weak algorithms, buggy software, or even psychological and cognitive limits of the human mind. Upon closer inspection, one can surmise that the philosophy associated with passwords has not changed. Authentication continues to operate on the fundamental paradigm of a secret, a knowledge-prover, and a knowledge-verifier. The epistemology related to password-based authentication—how the prover establishes possession of the secret such that the verifier can trust the prover without the prover revealing the secret—presents a future problem.

A Partial Transhuman Reality

While some may consider transhumanism to be the province of science fiction, others such as Kurzweil (2005) argue that the merging of Man and Machine is already begun. Of notable interest in this work is partial-transhumanist nanotechnology or, in simple terms, the embedding of microscopic computing systems in our bodies. Such nanotechnology need not be fully autonomous but typically does include some computational sensing ability. The most advanced example are the nanomachines that are used in medicine (Verma, Vijaysingh, & Kushwaha, 2016). Nevertheless, such nanotechnology represents the blueprint for rapid advancement. In fact, research is well underway on using nanomachines (or nanite) for enhanced cognitive computations (Fukushima, 2016).

At the crossroads of partial transhumanism (nanotechnology) and authentication there appears to be a deeper problem. In short, partial-transhumanism may obviate the capacity for a verifier to trust whether a prover, in truth, possesses a secret. Should a verifier not be able to trust a prover, the entirety of authentication may collapse.

Much research does exist that investigates the mathematical basis, the psychological basis, and the technological basis for authentication. There has been little philosophical exploration of authentication. Work such as that of Qureshi, Younus, and Khan (2009) developed a general philosophical overview of password-based authentication but largely focused on developing a philosophical taxonomy to overlay modern password technology. The literature extending Qureshi et al. exclusively builds upon the strictly technical side of password-based authentication, ignoring the philosophical.

Accordingly, the purpose of this work is to describe the concepts directly linked to modern technological trust in authentication and demonstrate how, in a partial transhumanist reality, the concepts of zero-knowledge proof may cease to be viable. Towards this end, I will describe the conceptual framework underlying the operational theme of this work. Then, I explore the abstraction of technological trust as such relates to understanding proof of knowledge. This understanding of where trust fits into normative social epistemology will inform the subsequent description of the problem space. After that, I move on to describe the conceptual architecture of zero-knowledge proofs which serve as the pillars of modern authentication and how transhumanism may adversely impact such. Finally, I will present recommendations on possible society-centric remedies in both partial trans-humanistic as well as full trans-humanistic technologically mediated realities with the goal of preserving technological trust.

Conceptual Framework

Establishing a conceptual framework before delving too far into building the case for trust ceasing to be viable in partial transhumanist reality will permit a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. Such a frame of reference must necessarily include a discussion of how technology inherently mediates our relationship with other humans and technologies. Put another way; technologies are unmistakably involved in human subjectivity while human subjectivity forms the concept of technology (Kiran & Verbeek, 2010). This presupposes a grasp of the technological abstraction though.

Broadly, technology in the context of this work is taken to mean qualitative (abstract) applied science as opposed to practical or quantitative applied of science. This definition follows closely with recent discussions on technology by Scalambrino (2016) and the body of work by Heidegger and Plato. In other words, technology should be understood as those modalities that facilitate progress relative to socially beneficial objectives. In specific, we are concerned with the knowledge modality as opposed to discrete mechanisms, objects, or devices.

What is more, the adjoining of technology, society, and knowledge is a critical element in the conceptual framework for this work. Technology is no longer a single-use, individualized object. Instead, technology is a social arbiter that has grown to be innate to what Idhe (1990) related as a normative human gestalt. While this view is a contrast to views such as offered by Feenberg (1999), the two are not exclusive necessarily.

Further, we must establish the component of our conceptual framework that evidences what it means to verify knowledge. One approach is a scientific model that procedurally quantifies knowledge within a predefined structure. Given the technological nature of this work, such may be inescapable at least as a cognitive bias. More abstractly though, verification of knowledge is conducted by inference whether by the individual or across social collectives. The mechanism of inference, in turn, can be expressed in proof.   Similarly, on inference through proof, another component in our conceptual framework corresponds to the amount of knowledge necessary to demonstrate knowing. As I discuss later, the amount of knowing is either full or limited. That is, proof of knowledge or proof without knowledge.

Technological Trust

The connection between knowledge and trust has a strong history of debate in the social epistemic context. This work is not intended to directly add to the debate surrounding trust. However, recognition of the debate is necessary to develop the bridge connecting trust and zero-knowledge proofs before moving onto zero-knowledge proof and authentication. Further, conceptualizing technological trust permits the construction of a foundation for the central proposition in this work.

To the point, Simon (2013) argued that knowledge relies on trust. McCraw (2015) extended this claim by establishing four components of epistemic trust: belief, communication, reliance, and confidence. These components are further grouped into epistemic (belief and communication) as well as trust (reliance and confidence) conditionals (2015). Trust, in this context, exemplifies the social aspect of knowledge insofar as we do not directly experience trust but hold trust as valid because of the collective position of validity.

Furthermore, Simmel (1978) perceived trust to be integral to society. That is, trust as a knowledge construct, exists in many disciplines and, per Origgi (2004) permeates our cognitive existence. Additionally, there is an argument to be made that, by using technology, we implicitly place trust in such technology (Kiran & Verbeek, 2010). Nonetheless, trust we do.

Certainly, part of such trust is due to the mediation provided by our ubiquitous technology. As well, trust in technology and trust from technology are integral functions of modern social perspectives. On the other hand, we must be cautious in understanding the conditions that lead to technological trust. Work by Idhe (1979; 1990) and others have suggested that technological trust stems from our relation to the technology. Perhaps closer to transhumanism, Levy (1998) offered that such trust is more associated with technology that extends us.

Technology that extends human capacity is a principal abstraction. As well, concomitant to technological trust is knowledge. While the conceptual framework for this work includes verification of knowledge as well as the amount of knowledge necessary to evidence knowing, there is a need to include knowledge proofs in the discourse.

Zero-Knowledge Proof

Proof of knowledge is a logical extension of the discussion of trust. Where trust can be thought as the mechanism through which we allow technology to mediate reality, proof of knowledge is how we come to trust specific forms of technology. In turn, proof of knowledge—specifically, zero-knowledge proof—provides a foundation for trust in technological mediation in the general case and technological authentication in the specific case.

The Nature of Proof

The construct of proof may adopt different meaning depending upon the enveloping context. In the context of this work, we use the operational meaning provided by Pagin (1994). In other words, the proof is established during the process of validating the correctness of a proposition. Furthermore, for any proof to be perceived as valid, such must demonstrate elements of completeness and soundness (Pagin, 1994; 2009).

There is, of course, a larger discourse on the epistemic constraints of proof (Pagin, 1994; Williamson, 2002; Marton, 2006). Such lies outside of the scope of this work however as we are not concerned with can proof be offered for knowledge but rather how proof occurs. In other words, we are interested in the mechanism of proof. Thus, for our purposes, we presuppose that proof of knowledge is possible and is so in through two possible operations: proof with knowledge and proof without knowledge.

Proof with Knowledge

A consequence of typical proof system is that all involved parties gain knowledge. That is, if I know x exists in a specific truth condition, I must present all relevant premises so that you can reach the same conclusion. Thus, the proposition is not only true or false to us both equally but also the means of establishing such truth or falsehood is transparent. This is what can be referred to as proof of knowledge.

In most scenarios, proof with knowledge is a positive mechanism. That is, the parties involved mutually benefit from the outcome. Mathematics and logic are primary examples of this proof state. However, when considering the case of technological trust in the form of authentication proof with knowledge is not desirable.

Proof Without Knowledge

Imagine that you that know that p is true. Further, you wish to demonstrate to me that you know this without revealing how you came to know or what it is exactly that you know. In other words, you wish to keep some aspect of the knowledge secret. I must validate that you know p without gaining any knowledge. This is the second state of proof known as zero-knowledge proof and forms the basis for technological trust in the form of authentication.

Goldwasser, Micali, and Rackoff (1989) defined zero-knowledge proofs as a formal, systematic approach to validating the correctitude of a proposition without communicating additional knowledge. Extra in this context can be taken to imply knowledge other than the proposition itself. An important aspect is that the proposition originates with a verifier entity as opposed to a prover entity. In response to the proposition to be proven, the prover completes an action without revealing any knowledge to the verifier other than the knowledge that the action was completed. If the proposition is probabilistically true, the verifier is satisfied. Note that the verifier and prover entities can be in the form of machine-to-human, human-to-human, or machine-to-machine.

Zero-knowledge proofs are the core of technological trust and, accordingly, authentication. While discrete instances of authentication exist practically outside of the social epistemic purview, the broader theory of authentication is, in fact, a socially collective phenomenon. That is, even in the abstract, authentication is a specific case for technologically mediated trust.


The zero-knowledge proof abstraction translates directly into modern authentication modalities. In general, authentication involves a verifier issuing a request to prove knowledge and a prover establishing knowledge by means of a secret to the verifier. Thus, the ability to provide such proof in a manner that is consistent with the verifier request is technologically sufficient to authenticate (Syverson & Cervesato, 2000). However, there are subtleties within the authentication zero-knowledge proof that warrant discussion.

Authentication, or being authenticated, implies two technologically mediated realities. First, the authentication process relies upon the authenticating entity (i.e., the prover) possessing a secret exclusively. The mediated reality for both the verifier and the prover is that to be authenticated implies an identity. In simple terms, I am who I claim to be based on (a) exclusive possession of the secret; and (b) the ability to sufficiently demonstrate such through the zero-knowledge proof to the verifier. Likewise, the verifier is identified to the prover.

Secondly, authentication establishes a general right of access for the verifier based on, again, possession of an exclusive secret. Consequently, there is a technological mediation of what objects are available to the verifier once authenticated (i.e., all authorized objects) or not authenticated (i.e., no objects). Thus, the zero-knowledge proof is a mechanism of associating the prover’s identity with a set of objects in the world and facilitating access to those objects. That is to say, once authenticated, the identity has operational control within corresponding space over linked objects.

Normatively, authentication is a socially collective phenomenon despite individual authentication relying upon exclusive zero-knowledge proof (Van Der Meyden & Wilke, 2007). Principally, authentication is a means of interacting with other humans, technology, and society at large while maintaining trust. However, if authentication is a manifestation of technological trust, one must wonder if transhumanism may affect the zero-knowledge proof abstraction.


More (1990) described transhumanism as a philosophy that embraces the profound changes to society and the individual brought about by science and technology. There is strong debate as to when such change will occur although most futurists argue that technology has already begun to transcend the breaking point of explosive growth. Technology in this context aligns with the conceptual framework of this work. As well, there is an agreement in the philosophical literature with the idea of such technological expansion (Bostrom, 1998; More, 2013).

Furthermore, transhumanism exists in two forms: partial transhumanism and full transhumanism (Kurzweil, 2005). This work is concerned with partial transhumanism exclusively. Furthermore, partial transhumanism is inclusive of three modalities. According to Kurzweil (2005), these modalities are (a) technology sufficient to manipulate human life genetically; (b) nanotechnology; and (c) robotics. In the context of this work, I am interested in the potentiality of nanotechnology.

Briefly, nanotechnology exists in several forms. The form central to this work involves embedding microscopic machines within human biology. These machines can perform any number of operations, including augmenting existing bodily systems. Along these lines, Vinge (1993) argued that a by-product of technological expansion will be the monumental increase in human intelligence. Although there are a variety of mechanisms by which technology will amplify raw brainpower, nanotechnology is a forerunner in the mind of Kurzweil and others.

What is more, the computational power of nanites is measurable and predictable (Chau, et al., 2005; Bhore, 2016). The amount of human intellectual capacity projected to result from nanotechnology may be sufficient to impart hyper-cognitive or even extrasensory abilities. With such augmentation, the human mind will be capable of computational decision-making well beyond existing technology.

While the notion of nanites embedded in our bodies, augmenting various biomechanical systems to the point of precognitive awareness of zero-knowledge proof verification, may strike some as science fiction, there is growing precedent. Existing research in the field of medicine demonstrates that at least partially autonomous nanites have a grounding in reality (Huilgol & Hede, 2006; Das et al., 2007; Murray, Siegel, Stein, & Wright, 2009). Thus, envisioning a near future where more powerful and autonomous nanites are available is not difficult.

Technological Trust in Authentication

The purpose of this work was to describe technological trust in authentication and demonstrate how, in a future partial transhumanist reality, the concepts of zero-knowledge proof will cease to be viable. Towards that end, I examined technological trust in the context of how and why such trust is established. Further, knowledge proofs were discussed with an emphasis on proofs without knowledge. Such led to an overview of authentication and, subsequently, transhumanism.

Based on the analysis so far, the technological trust afforded by such proof appears to be no longer feasible once embedded nanotechnology is introduced into humans. Nanite augmented cognition will result in the capability for a knowledge-prover to, on demand, compute knowledge sufficient to convince a knowledge-verifier. Outright, such a reality breaks the latent assumptions that operationalize the conceptual framework into related technology. That is, once the knowledge-verifier cannot trust that the knowledge is known by the prover, a significant future problem arises.

Unfortunately, the fields of computer science and computer engineering do not historically plan for paradigm shifting innovations well. Such is exacerbated when the paradigm shift has rapid onset after a long ramp-up time as is the case with the technological singularity. More specifically, partial transhumanism as considered in this work may have unforeseen effects beyond the scope of the fields that created the technology in the first place. The inability to handle rapid shifts is largely related to these fields posing what is type questions.

Similarly, the Collingridge dilemma tells us that, “…the social consequences of a technology cannot be predicated early in the life of the technology” (1980, p. 11). Thus, adequate preparation for the eventual collapse of zero-knowledge proof requires asking what ought to be. Such a question is a philosophical question. As it stands, recognition of social epistemology as an interdisciplinary field already exists (Froehlich, 1989; Fuller, 2005; Zins, 2006). More still, there is a precedent for philosophy informing the science of technology (Scalambrino, 2016) and assembling the foundation of future looking paradigm shifts.

Accordingly, a recommendation is for social epistemologists and technologists to jointly examine modifications to the abstract zero-knowledge proof such that the proof is resilient to nanite-powered knowledge computation. In conjunction, there may be a benefit in attempting to conceive of a replacement proof system that also harnesses partial-transhumanism for the knowledge-verifier in a manner commensurate with any increase in capacity for the knowledge-prover. Lastly, a joint effort may be able to envision a technologically mediated construct that does not require proof without knowledge at all.


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Van Der Meyden, Ron and Thomas Wilke. “Preservation of Epistemic Properties in Security Protocol Implementations.” In Proceedings of the 11th Conference on Theoretical Aspects of Rationality and Knowledge (2007): 212-221.

Vinge, Verner. “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.” Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace. Proceedings of a symposium cosponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute and held in Westlake, Ohio March 30-31, 1993, NASA Conference Publication 10129 (1993): 11-22,

Verma, S., K. Vijaysingh and R. Kushwaha. “Nanotechnology: A Review.” In Proceedings of the Emerging Trends in Engineering & Management for Sustainable Development, Jaipur, India, 19–20 February 2016.

Zins, Chaim. “Redefining Information Science: From ‘Information Science’ to ‘Knowledge Science’.” Journal of Documentation 62, no. 4, (2006). 447-461.

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University,

Stokes, Patrick. “Reluctance and Suspicion: Reply to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 48-58.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: Thomas Huang, via flickr

I am grateful to both Matthew Dentith and Lee Basham for their thoughtful and generous replies to my barging into their discussion of particularism and generalism about conspiracy theory. An over-long reply is a rather poor way to repay that generosity, but here goes.

Conspiracy Theory vs. Conspiracy Narrative

A central part of my argument in Stokes is that there is a gap between how epistemologists use the term “conspiracy theory” and how the term is popularly used.[1] My concern is that by defining “conspiracy theory” so broadly, epistemologists end up losing sight of the recognizable cultural practice of conspiracy theorizing. It’s well established by this point in the debate that there is no prima facie reason to reject conspiracy theories on the basis of their formal explanatory structure alone. But that level of abstraction is not, so to speak, where we live, and nor is it the level on which social critiques of conspiracy theory operate.

Dentith and Basham respond to this concern in different ways. Dentith argues that some of my worries about conspiracy theory are really concerns about certain types of conspiracy narrative. The problem is not the simple act of forming (or asserting) explanations of observed events that involve two or more actors conspiring in secret, but the deployment of particular narratives about specific conspiracies; for instance, the “Jewish World Conspiracy” narrative (or overlapping narratives, perhaps) promulgated by figures as diverse as the Tsarist Okhrana, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Adolf Hitler, and David Duke. “To theorise about a conspiracy—to wit, to engage in conspiracy theorising—is a different task from hooking into an existing conspiracy narrative to press a point,” and accordingly, the two should be evaluated separately.[2]

At first blush, such a distinction maps neatly onto my own concern to differentiate conspiracy explanation as a formal category from conspiracy theory as a recognizable social practice and cultural formation. And in terms of the debate between generalism and particularism, adopting this distinction would seems to leave open the possibility of maintaining particularism about conspiracy theorizing while adopting a generalism about certain conspiracy narratives—something very like the “defeasible generalism” or “reluctant particularism” I endorsed.

In practice, however, it’s not clear how clear a line we can draw between conspiracy theory and conspiracy narrative as Dentith construes these terms. Dentith invites us to “imagine someone in a room, dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit.”[3] But if this conspiracy theorist is anything like most conspiracy theorists, her theories, however dispassionate, are going to draw upon existing conspiracy theory tropes and narrative structures. It is remarkable how strongly the same tropes recur in otherwise disconnected conspiracy theories: for instance, the near-ubiquity of “false flag” explanations. Say Dentith’s speculator sees reports of a mass shooting event, and wonders: “Perhaps this shooting is a false flag designed to prepare the ground for disarming the population.” That is not a stand-alone explanation, but one embedded in a tradition of “the government is coming take your guns” anxieties. It sits within a long, ongoing, evolving, recognizable history of interpretation. These day, it re-emerges, fully-formed, within minutes of any major mass shooting, regardless of context or location.

Of course, one could reply here that there’s no reason to think conspiracies won’t tend to resemble each other: the similarity of conspiracy narratives may simply reflect the finite repertoire of strategies available to conspirators. Moreover, conspiracy theories generally posit fairly powerful actors, which in turn limits the pool of possible perpetrators, so we’d expect to see recurring villains in these explanations. In short, there are only so many possible conspirators, and only so many possible ways for them to conspire effectively. Even so, in considering any individual act of conspiracy theorizing it’s difficult to see how we could differentiate between what is genuinely original (even if isomorphic with other conspiracy theories) and what borrows its form—and a large part of its sanction—from existing conspiracy narratives.

However, let’s assume that Dentith’s lackey-dispatching idle speculator is somehow oblivious to conspiracy theorizing as a social practice—perhaps she, in a nod to Frank Jackson’s “Mary,” has been raised in an environment where she has never been exposed to any existing conspiracy theories or conspiracy tropes.[4] Her conspiracy theories are, let’s stipulate, self-standing and sui generis alternatives to “official” explanations of given events. Does that entitle all her theories to be considered in a particularist way?

Accusation and Reluctance

This question connects us to what I described as “reluctance,” which should attach to both conspiracy theorizing and to indulging in particular conspiracy narratives. Dentith’s conspiracy theorist spins her theories “dispassionately.” But then, what motivates them? Dentith tells us that the question of whether mass shootings are a government plot designed to curb gun rights is “a perfectly interesting question” and that “entertaining that notion is something someone, somewhere should engage in.”[5] It’s not clear however where the “should” emerges from here. Of course, one can “dispassionately” speculate about anything. I could, for instance, walk into any room and try to calculate the probability that anyone in that room is plotting to kill me. Despite being a fairly anxious sort I’d probably do so calmly, because I am not actually entertaining the prospect that some of these people want to do me in. I’m just idly playing with the idea. But it is far from clear why I should speculate like this, and likewise it is far from clear why I should speculate whether mass shooting events were hoaxed by the government.

Ok, we might think, but surely such speculation is both harmless enough on its own terms and potentially exposes genuine plots, however unlikely? After all, insists Dentith, “you can theorise about conspiracy theories without making accusations.”[6] Dentith here specifies that “the threshold for accusation here [must be] something higher than simply saying “They are up to something…’”[7] But just how far can we go down that path before we’re making accusations? We can certainly avoid blaming anyone specific by offering explanations so under-described they barely seem to warrant the name “theory” (“Things are not as they seem,” “I’ll bet they are behind this” etc.). But this doesn’t get us very far. It’s not clear how far you can go with suggesting a mass casualty event was really a false flag exercise without impugning someone. We might try to find a redoubt here between accusation and non-accusation to hide in; we might want to call that redoubt “expressing suspicion” or, more commonly, “just asking questions” (less charitably known as “JAQing off”). But just asking questions that call someone’s innocence into question is not a morally neutral act. Dentith’s dispassionate speculator may not be doing very much practical harm, but she is nonetheless engaging in a practice with a moral cost. My walking into a room and idly wondering if you’re planning to kill me may not cause you much upset—mostly because I wouldn’t mention doing so, as that would make things pretty awkward—but I’ve still entertained the idea you might be a murderer, and thereby done you a passing wrong. There are of course circumstances where that’s a warranted suspicion or even a necessary prudential response; but those circumstances are, precisely because they violate the background trust intrinsic to human sociality (more on this below), abnormal, even when pervasive and persistent.

For Dentith, distinguishing between conspiracy theorizing and conspiracy narrative does allow us to avoid certain narratives that are discredited or problematic. But the motivation here remains, on his telling, fundamentally epistemological rather than ethical:

After all, if the evidence is “This looks like a redressed version of a Jewish banking conspiracy narrative,” then the appropriate evidential response is to ask “Hasn’t this been debunked?” Because if it has, then we will have evidence to mount against the new version. If it has not, then we need to investigate the claim further.”[8]

That may well be a perfectly valid evidential response. But we do not apply our evidential reasoning in a vacuum, but do so from within historically conditioned and epistemically finite situations, in a world already freighted with moral and political meanings. We do not step out of the world when we think and reflect; our thinking, reflecting, and suspecting are all actions we perform and so subject to moral inspection. In that context, an at least equally appropriate response is:

Entertaining theories about a global Jewish world conspiracy is a well-recognized anti-Semitic practice, and I will not engage in such a practice by taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

It remains logically possible such a theory is true, but not only are we not morally or rationally obliged to entertain every theory, we are morally obliged to reject some theories even at the risk of occasionally being wrong. Basham claims it is a virtue of particularism that it “directly confronts theories that are unwarranted (Jews are trying to destroy Western civilization),” but as he presents particularism here, it doesn’t look like this is the sort of confrontation he has in mind.[9]

Generalism and Ethics

Unlike Dentith, Basham evidently doesn’t want to buy into a distinction between conspiracy theory as a cultural phenomenon and conspiracy theory as a particular form of explanation. He instead defends a thoroughgoing particularism without even the evidentiary heuristics Dentith wants to develop, insisting that conspiracy theories “should be evaluated solely case by case, on the basis of evidence, without any epistemic mal-biasing.”[1] Basham claims that my “reluctant particularism” or “defeasible generalism” is an unstable binary: it either collapses into generalism (given that generalists preserve some sliver of defeasibility) or is simply particularism.

Here’s the argument Basham attributes to me:

1) Epistemic generalism is true; epistemic issues are “off the table” except in extremely rare cases (traditional generalism);
2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;
3) If a theory causes harm, it is morally suspect (consequentialism);
4) Particularism claims we should evaluate conspiracy theories on the evidential warrant of each;
5) Unwarranted conspiracy theories are popularly believed for long periods of time without evidence (the “unreasoning masses” gambit);

So, Particularism is not the correct approach to conspiracy theorizing.[2]

Basham also adds what he takes to be a missing premise here:

6) Our default analysis of conspiracy theories should not be in terms of evidential merit, but in terms of how they promote or undermine our political projects; those that undermine these should be rejected, those that promote these should be promoted.[3]

I don’t recognize my position in this argument, though I’ve no doubt this is down to imprecision on my part and not Basham’s. I do assert premises 2) and 3). Premise 5), as defined here, doesn’t really amount to an “unreasoning masses” gambit: conspiracy theorists rarely form a mass and are not necessarily irrational. For instance, with respect to my example of deaths from improperly/untreated AIDS in South Africa, it is of course no part of my original claim that the 330,000+ people who died necessarily believed in the conspiracy theory themselves, let alone that they were irrational; it is enough that the government (or even senior figures in the government) believed it and acted accordingly in framing their policy responses to the HIV epidemic.[4]

Premise 6) casts what is an essentially moral claim—show reticence in suspecting or accusing others of malfeasance—in political terms. Basham takes my view to be a version of the Public Trust Approach (PTA). But PTA is still an argument about the epistemic reliability of institutions; it’s “trust” in the sense of “I trust this ladder to bear my weight,” not trust in the sense of “I trust the people in this room not to kill me.” The latter is not merely predictive (“I’m 98% sure you’re not planning to kill me right now”) but an expression of a moral relation: I’m in your hands, and the fact I am so enjoins you not to act against me. This is not to deny that conspiracy theory can have dramatically corrosive effects on the body politic; indeed we’re arguably seeing that right now amidst the apparently tectonic shifts occurring in the relationship between media, politics, and citizenry. Nonetheless my point is primarily a scaled-up moral one rather than a scaled-down political one.

This brings us to the central point of disagreement here, which is premise 1). At least as phrased here, 1) seems to separate moral and epistemic issues that are in fact coimbricated right from the outset. That there is nothing prima facie epistemically false about conspiracy explanations simply as such is, to reiterate, now well established. But, as noted above, we never form our views in a moral vacuum, and that will (or should) have implications for the sort of theories we are prepared to entertain. In discussing my “reluctant particularism,” Basham notes that:

If “reluctant” means we will not immediately embrace a theory, but seek significant evidence for or against, then this is simply the particularist position. We have the same “reluctance” towards any scientific theory. This reluctance doesn’t view the theory as prima facie false. Saying a theory is not yet warranted is not to say it probably never will be, just because of the sort of theory it is.[5]

Quite right. But the comparison with science only goes so far, for we do not stand in a moral relation to the objects of scientific inquiry, at least as regards the purely scientific questions we pose of them; we do not do wrong by subatomic particles or nebulae by postulating theories about them that turn out to be false. Levelling a false accusation has a moral cost to it that proposing a flawed hypothesis in physics or chemistry, in itself at least, does not.

The Payoffs of Particularism

Basham takes it that when I discuss the moral cost of conspiracy accusation in this way, “the ‘immoral’ is a simple consequentialism.”[6] Consequences matter, and that is why I noted them in the case of AIDs denialism[7] in South Africa, but the claim is not fundamentally or solely a consequentialist one. If I publish a blog insisting without anything like credible evidence that Prince Philip had MI6 murder Diana, I’ve still wronged Prince Philip even if he never finds out or doesn’t care or suffers no other unwelcome effects of my accusation. But let’s dwell on consequences for a moment, as that is where Basham launches a defense of particularism.

Basham claims that particularism about conspiracy theory, characterized by “evidence-dissemination and open debate,” has in practice yielded various dividends, both in terms of confirming some conspiracy theories and refuting others. Two things need to be noted in response. The first is that all of the conspiracy theories Basham claims to have been defeated are alive and well: it will come as cold comfort to CDC employees harassed by anti-vaccination activists outside their workplace to hear that “The anti-vaccination movement has been profoundly undermined” and even less comfort to parents in places like the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, where vaccination levels, thanks to denialism, remain dangerously below herd immunity level.[8] The President of the United States has publically supported the idea of a link between vaccines and autism, and has reportedly discussed appointing antivax activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to chair a commission into the subject.[9] If this is a movement that has been profoundly undermined, one shudders to think what it looks like in rude health. It may also be true that, as Basham claims, “Many of the tenets of the 9/11 truth movement have been abandoned by its own members,”[10] but that movement has likewise hardly vanished; as Alex Jones has recently demonstrated, you can still go on TV and publically call 9/11 an inside job and Sandy Hook a hoax and still have the President-Elect of the United States call you to thank you and your viewers for their support.[11]

Secondly, Basham claims that particularism has made it possible for certain conspiracy theories to be confirmed. Specifically, he claims that “the Iraq war is now widely recognized in the West to be an act of political conspiracy on the part of the US and other Western governments, particularly those of Bush and Blair.”[12] But both “political conspiracy” and “widely recognized” (note that Basham does not simply say “widely believed”) are ambiguous here. If the claim is that the West unjustly pursued self-interested motives in invading Iraq under the cover of overblown WMD threats, that seems clearly true, but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a conspiracy. One can act in self-interested ways without conspiring with others.[13] If the claim is rather that Bush, Blair, and other actors actively and explicitly colluded to fake intelligence about WMDs to provide a false justification for invading Iraq, then this is far from a “widely recognized” fact.

The Chilcot Report, for instance, is comprehensively damning about the UK Government’s decision to go to war, yet even it stops short of alleging a conspiracy, unless we think that a grotesque combination of motivated willful ignorance, hubris, and negligence somehow meets the definition of conspiracy used by epistemologists. Of course, it may yet emerge someday that there was a conspiracy: a phone transcript might yet surface of Bush telling Blair “Let’s milk this 9/11 thing by pretending Iraq has WMD and then invading to take their oil.” But I’d be willing to bet that if that does happen, it won’t emerge from the ranks of those now popularly referred to as conspiracy theorists. It will come, as it usually does, from whistleblowers and journalists. (Until recently, I’d have included Wikileaks in that list…)

That in no way invalidates the important point made, by Pigden and others, that the pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theory” makes it easier for political actors to deflect attention from legitimate questions. But then, if we want to stop the term being used to shut down proper scrutiny, we need to be honest about why the term has the pejorative connotations it has: the tradition to which the term is characteristically applied, and the attitudes, tropes, and patterns of argumentation employed by that tradition.

The Tracy Affair

I raised the case of James Tracy as an instance of morally reprehensible behavior licensed by conspiracy theory. I think this case illustrates a very specific problem: the way conspiracy theories tend to (and note I do not say any more than “tend to”) cause conspiracy theorists to make purely defensive accusations. Basham insists however that while Tracy’s actions were “misguided” as well as “immoral and imprudent,” the Tracy affair has “no epistemic relevance to how we should approach conspiracy theories as such.”[14] The “as such” clause here makes a degree of sense if, like Basham, one is committed to a purely epistemological analysis of conspiracy theory. But only a degree. The behavior in this case is not simply a matter of insensitivity or imprudence grafted onto an otherwise unrelated belief system. It’s a direct result of trying to defend that belief system from disconfirmation.

Imagine you meet someone who tells you their child has been killed. What would need to be the case for you to begin to suspect that they are lying not merely about the death of that child, but about the child’s very existence? Now imagine how strong those suspicions would need to be for you to demand that the person you’re talking prove, to your satisfaction, that their child had existed. The evidentiary bar here would have to be very high indeed.

But now imagine that the story of the dead child (call this story or set of propositions x) is flatly incompossible with another set of beliefs you happen to hold (call this set c). You have four options:

1) Accept x is true and accept c is false;
2) Reject x and insist c is true;
3) Accept x is true but try to find a way to make this fact compossible with the truth of c;
4) Remain agnostic as to which, if either, of x and c is true.

In this case, the more committed you are to c, the stronger the reasons you’ll have for rejecting 1) and 4). That leaves you with either 3)—which is hard work and may turn out not to be possible in a given case—or 2). In this case, Tracy’s c was the belief that Sandy Hook was staged, and he took option 2). It strains credulity, to say the least, to claim that Tracy simply noticed, independently of his antecedent commitment to Sandy Hook being a hoax, problems with the Pozeners’ story and accused them on that basis. He accused them because their story contradicted an interpretation of the events of 14 December 2014 that he accepted. Moreover, such an accusation of deceit is easier to make, because more parsimonious, if one is already committed to the existence of a conspiracy not simply to commit the act, but to hide the truth. That doesn’t mean such accusations are always and necessarily a feature of conspiracy theorizing.

Again, my claim goes to the typical features of conspiracy theory as a social phenomenon rather than a specific form of explanation. And it is frequent enough to be a particularly salient feature of the phenomenon. Tracy, after all, is not the only person to confront Sandy Hook parents and witnesses and accuse them of being crisis actors. Nor is Sandy Hook Trutherism the only form of conspiracy theory that generates this class of accusations.[15] When journalist Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward were shot dead on live television in August 2015, Parker’s boyfriend Chris Hurst found his grief compounded by conspiracy theorists insisting that Parker was a crisis actor, that she was not dead, that Hurst too was a crisis actor, that they had never had a relationship, and so on.[16] Again, this doubt is motivated not by any evidence that would be compelling independently of a conspiracy theory, but solely by a pre-existing disposition to believe the shooting was staged and that Parker and Ward (and by extension Hurst) must therefore be crisis actors—a claim made by, among others, James Tracy’s blog.[17]

As I understand it, Dentith’s current project seeks to develop heuristics for determinging when a conspiracy theory claim is and is not worthy of being taken seriously enough to investigate it—in other words, something like the non-absolutist particularism I’m endorsing and Basham rejects. If we’re developing heuristics for when we should and should not investigate conspiracy claims, then

Does taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it require me to dismiss grieving parents as frauds, under conditions in which there exist no compelling theory-independent reasons to think they are? If so, don’t take this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

— isn’t a bad start.

A Final Word on Trust

One thing that this discussion has made clear to me is that radically different foundational views of the role of trust are in play here. In my initial reply I only alluded to this parenthetically, and it is clear that more needs to be said, if only to clarify what underlies the divergences. A fuller working out of this point will need to wait for another occasion. For now, it’s worth simply noting where the underlying views of the normativity of trust differ.

The philosophical literature on conspiracy theory largely embeds a calculative view of trust. When most philosophers ask “How much should we trust our society’s sources of information?” they are asking a question about reliability: “On past performance, how much confidence should we have that these institutions are telling the truth and/or acting in a way consistent with their stated commitments to acting in our interests?” There is, as Dentith notes, no way of determining in advance just how conspired the world really is.[18] But nonetheless, it is not unconspired—conspiracies occur, and most philosophers working on this topic take conspiracy to be a more pervasive feature of social and political life than we usually assume, and think we should calibrate our suspicions accordingly.

David Coady, for instance, explicitly endorses a sort of Aristotelian account of trust, according to which “the intellectual virtue of realism is a golden mean between the intellectual vices of paranoia and naivety.”[19] Thus, our phronetic judgement should aim to be just suspicious enough. Alasdair MacIntyre[20] has offered a similar account of ideal trust as a mean between excessive suspicion and credulity, arrived at through a long process of moral training: learning who to trust, and when, and how much.[21]

Yet trust as an interpersonal and moral phenomenon is not simply a matter of calculating and responding to reliability. For one thing, it involves mutual responsiveness to need, taking the fact the other person knows I am reliant on them to be a reason for them to act consistent with my interests.[22]

We know that not everyone is trustworthy in that sense. Basham tells us that “Human life is conspiratorial. We can face this, embrace it, but if we deny it, we empower it in the worst way.”[23] People lie, cheat, and steal, and sometimes they conspire in order to do so. But human life is also predicated on foundational, non-calculative trust. When I walk into a room I don’t mentally calculate the odds of you trying to kill me, not because I’ve previously assured myself that the odds too low to worry about, but because of that default background trust that is a condition for social life. As K.E. Løgstrup put it, trust is both conceptually and ontogenetically primary, distrust secondary; without that foundational trust the sphere of human life falls apart.[24] Accordingly, our judgments of what to believe of other people are guided by heuristics that are not merely epistemic in character, but also ethical. Giving “the benefit of the doubt” is not, or not typically, merely a judgement about the reliability of the other party, but an expression of that normative default attitude towards others.

This picture of foundational trust sits awkwardly, to say the least, with the standing vigilance required to maintain a democratic polity. There are always good reasons to be suspicious of power of all forms, both overt and covert, explicit and intrinsic. The work of identifying and uncovering power relations is indispensable, and it seems to involve a relentless and remorseless hermeneutics of suspicion. That tension—between foundational trust and vigilance—is a real and seemingly permanent feature of political and social life. What I have called “reluctance” here is an expression of that tension, an awareness of being caught between the duty to view others as good faith interlocutors and the duty to uncover wrong-doing. The sort of generalized, eager suspicion involved in entertaining and advancing conspiracy theories abandons that reluctance, and thereby misses that central dimension of human sociality. In a world full of untrustworthy people, the demand of trust remains.

Or, to quote the US President who presided over the Gulf of Tonkin conspiracy, himself misquoting W.H. Auden: “We must love each other, or we must die.”


Basham, Lee. “Between Two Generalisms: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 4-12.

Coady, David. “An Introduction to the Philosophical Debate about Conspiracy Theories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 1-12. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006a.

Coady, David. “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited David Coady, 115-127. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006b.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “In Defence of Particularism: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 27-33.

Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (April 1982): 127-36.

Jones, Karen. “Trustworthiness.” Ethics 123, no. 1 (2012): 61-85.

Løgstrup, Knud Ejler. The Ethical Demand. Translated by Theodor I. Jensen, Gary Puckering, and Eric Watkins. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Human Nature and Human Dependence: What Might a Thomist Learn from Reading Løgstrup?” In Concern for the Other: Perspectives on the Ethics of K. E. Løgstrup, edited by Svend Andersen and Kees van Kooten Niekerk, 147-166. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Pigden, Charles. “‘Popper Revisited,’ or What Is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25, no. 1 (1995): 3-34.

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism about Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 34-39.

Stokes, Patrick. “Spontaneity and Perfection: MacIntyre vs. Løgstrup.” In What is Ethically Demanded? K. E. Løgstrup’s Philosophy of Moral, edited by Hans Fink and Robert Stern, 275-299. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

[1] Ibid., 5.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10-11.

[4] Hence I don’t see how my paper “implies the existence of popular conspiracy theory at work in the populace and then infers that this belief must be efficacious in apparent medication refusal” (Basham 2016, 10 n.23).

[5] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 6.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Basham (2016, 10) is right to note that denialism per se is not the same thing as conspiracy theory. But AIDS denialism of various forms, much like other familiar forms of denialism—climate, vaccination etc.—does end up embedding conspiracy explanations either on the level of core theory or on the level of auxiliary hypotheses meant to sandbag the theory against disconfirmation. If I insist the world isn’t warming due to human activity, or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and yet the knowledge-generating mechanisms of society (academia, government research bodies, public health authorities etc.) keep insisting the contrary, I am forced to conclude the people who populate these mechanisms are collectively deluded, incompetent, or corrupt. The denialists just mentioned tend, with dispiriting regularity, to plump for the last option, even if they are not logically required to.

[8] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8.


[10] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8-9.


[12] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 10.

[13] Consider the category of ‘quasi-conspiracies’: if all actors in a given context know that if they all act in certain ways the outcome will be better for all of them, and know that all the other actors know this too, they can act in a way that looks co-ordinated but in fact involves no actual collusion (Pigden 1995, 32 n.30; Coady 2006a, 5-6). Hence when an apprehended criminal gang all refuse to confess, this isn’t strictly a ‘conspiracy of silence’: they all just know if they each keep their mouth shut, they’ll all be better off than if any one of them spills the beans.

[14] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 12.

[15] As I write this, local media is reporting that a conspiracy theorist phoned a Melbourne hospital posing as a friend of a patient injured in a mass-casualty event, apparently hoping to prove the event was staged and the injured woman’s story was fake.

[16] This ‘the bereaved aren’t visibly upset enough in public so they must be lying’ trope is a depressingly recurrent one that extends far beyond conspiracy theory. Australians a few years older than myself will recall Lindy Chamberlain being accused of seeming too composed to be the grieving mother of a baby taken by a wild dingo she claimed to be. Chamberlain was convicted of murder, imprisoned, and subsequently exonerated when new evidence emerged; in 2012 a coroner found that a dingo had, in fact, taken baby Azaria. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

[17] (Warning: on my most recent attempt to access this page [9 February 2017], Safari returned a malware warning)

[18] Denith, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories.

[19] Coady, “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories,” 126.

[20] MacIntyre, “Human Nature and Human Dependence.”

[21] On MacIntyre’s Aristotelian account of trust, which he offers in opposition to Løgstrup’s view of trust as foundational, see Stokes 2017.

[22] Jones, “Trustworthiness.”

[23] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 13.

[24] Løgstrup, The Ethical Demand.

Author Information: Jeremy Fantl, University of Calgary,

Fantl, Jeremy. “Interest-Relativity and Testimony.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 40-46.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: smilla4, via flickr

In her “Testimony and Epistemic Risk: The Dependence Account”, Karyn Freedman defends an interest-relative account of justified belief and suggests that the account can contribute to literature on testimony. According to her interest-relative account, your interests in whether p is true can make a difference to whether you justifiedly believe that proposition. Freedman distinguishes her account from earlier versions by allowing a distinctive role for emotional interests and how much we care about whether p is true. [1]  Continue Reading…