In a recent blog post Helen de Cruz oses the question “Can people be genuine epistemic peers?” initially in reference to the question of the rationality of atheism, raised in a discussion between Louise Antony and Gary Gutting. The presupposition seems to be that in cases of controversies between epistemic peers, all parties should converge on the same answer or jointly adopt an attitude of agnosticism. Louise Antony asks rhetorically “How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions?”. This assumption of convergence is a consequence of the prevalent primacy accorded to monism in both philosophy of religion and philosophy of science.

On the religious issue, I see no reason to think that belief in the existence of God or not is necessarlily an epistemic question. It may well be seen by many as a matter of adopting or maintaining a form of life. Another philosophical formalisation of this idea is the notion of modes of existence. Knowledge, evidentiality, and epistemicity are appropriate for one mode of existence (the referential), but God may be seen as belonging to another where evidence is not the criterion, but something like call and response, or conversion. One just has to think of the early Wittgenstein here. Bruno Latour’s ontology of modes of existence, detaching religion from questions of belief, is a more recent example.

On the scientific side, one is entitled to ask: is the concept of epistemic parity compatible with pluralism? If so, then one must drop the presumption of convergence, that epistemic peers will converge on the same conclusion. This may be true on intra-paradigmatic issues of a low-level of abstraction, e.g. forensic disputes, fossil research. But surely the existence of God is not like the existence of some extra piece of ontological furniture, but rather a paradigm-defining belief. Were any of Pasteur’s or Einstein’s opponents their epistemic peers?

One must not impose more homogeneity on the history of science than in fact existed. One may be inclined to think that physics is a model of convergence, but this is far from being the norm. For example, Einstein had many opponents, even if convergence and consensus occurred rather quickly. Dingler’s continued opposition is a case in point. Einstein received the Nobel prize in 1921 for his study of the photoelectric effect and not for relativity, which was still considered controversial. Einstein also contributed to quantum theory and had lots of opponents there, and convergence of epistemic peers was a long time in coming, and in fact is still not fully achieved. Ernst Mach rejected relativity as “dogmatic”. Yet he was considered as a respected mentor by Einstein himself (until he disagreed! Noone is perfect).

To say post festum that there was no real opposition from epistemic peers in the case of consensual figures like Einstein is to project a currently confirmed result back onto a historical period where controversy and opposition was rational. Convergence may come late, after a long period of controversy, if at all, and after a time be upset again. Rather than epistemic parity leading to convergence, it seems more arguable that convergence comes first, and that inculcation into the same or a similar paradigm is a prerequisite for being able to assign equal status to epistemic subjects within a specialised domain.

Thus there is a danger of circularity involved in the appeal to parity and its promise of convergence. A large degree of convergence is part of deciding who gets to be the “epistemic peer” of whom.

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