Philosophy Seminar Series: Mark Alfano (Macquarie University)
Philosophy Seminar Series
Mark Alfano, Macquarie University | 3:30pm, 19 April, 2023
Trust from mistrust
Nietzsche poses the question, “How could anything originate out of its opposite? Truth from error, for instance? Or the will to truth from the will to deception?” (BGE 2) He suggests that many people cannot bring themselves to accept that things of great value might be “derived from this ephemeral, seductive, deceptive, lowly world, from this mad chaos of confusion and desire.” But, he contends, possibly “whatever gives value to those good and honorable things has an incriminating link, bond, or tie to the very things that look like their evil opposites.”
Nietzsche’s interest in the origins of epistemic values in their opposites dates back to HH AOM 215, where he attempts to trace the “integrity of the republic of the learned” to patterns of trust and mistrust among scientists. He claims that scientific progress is made possible because “the individual is not obliged to be too mistrustful in the testing of every account and assertion made by others in domains in which he is a relative stranger,” but that this trustingness is licensed by the fact that “in his own field everyone must have rivals who are extremely mistrustful and are accustomed to observe him very closely.” The looming presence of these rivals makes it unrewarding and unappealing to engage in fraud or sloppy reasoning. And when scientists engage in questionable research practices under such conditions, they are liable to be caught and corrected.
Though he was writing before the era of modern peer review, Nietzsche anticipated some of its structural features. In this paper, I offer a more detailed account of the origins of warranted trust in systems and psychologies that cultivate mistrust. I contend that trust in experts by laypeople resembles trust in scientists by other scientists, and that more attention needs to be paid to the geometry of networks of trust and mistrust. I go on to characterize several ways to improve such networks through strategic (global) and tactical (individual) rewiring, as well the disposition to adopt more or less trusting attitudes depending on the group one finds oneself in. Thus, I adopt a role-based virtue epistemology modeled on Astola (2021), who argues for the importance of what might be seen as a vicious role when one’s group lacks the mistrust that makes trust reasonable. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in BGE 34, “As the creature who has been the biggest dupe the earth has ever seen, the philosopher pretty much has a right to a ‘bad character.’ It is his duty to be suspicious, to squint as maliciously as possible out of every abyss of mistrust.”
I conclude by presenting empirical evidence (n=989) that people who report a disposition to adopt this gadfly role are more likely to reject medical misinformation and unwarranted conspiracy theories, more likely to accept sound medical information warranted conspiracy theories, more likely to perform well on tests of numeracy, cognitive reflection, and intelligence, and more likely to correct their own errors in light of social feedback.
Philosophy Seminar Room (N494), the Quadrangle
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Image: Photo by Micha Frank