Matthew A. Benton on Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong
Living in society means learning from, and disagreeing with, others. Much of what we know, we learn from what others tell us; some of what others know is learned from what we tell them. This social arrangement, where knowledge is facilitated by linguistic communication, is efficient for transmitting knowledge quickly and for correcting individuals when they happen to believe falsehoods. It is also effective at producing disagreement and heated argument.
Philosophy, and epistemology especially, is at its best when it illuminates both our social dependence on others for knowledge and the optimal ways to reason and pursue answers together. Timothy Williamson, one of the foremost philosophers of his generation, explores these issues in Tetralogue, utilizing the time-honored (but lately neglected) genre of the philosophical dialogue.
Four strangers who meet on a train discuss and debate the way in which their everyday views interact with knowledge, truth, relativism, logic, and value. The cast is comprised of Sarah, who champions science and an empirical approach to viewing the world; ordinary guy Bob, who happens to believe in witches; relativistic Zac, who eschews talks of “true” and “false” in order to respect everyone’s viewpoint; and logical Roxana, who checks problematic reasoning and measures the consequences of everyone else’s stated positions. Among the questions the group takes up: Does science provide the only adequate method of learning about the world? Must we be able to prove what we claim to know? Are facts only relative to a perspective? Is relativism a refuge, or an unstable trap? Does using the terms “true” and “false” make one inappropriately absolutist or dogmatic? What stance should we take toward those with whom we disagree? Is “fallibilism” a feature of knowledge itself, or a stance of epistemic humility? On their journey they discuss, dispute, and dissect these issues.
Tetralogue is aimed at a wide readership, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Not only do well-educated people have trouble thinking clearly about these issues — philosophy is hard, after all — but many also seem to assume that clearer thinking on these issues is not needed because they have such obvious answers. That widely held assumption is on display in the comments on Justin McBrayer’s recent article “Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts” in the New York Times’ “The Stone” column. McBrayer adeptly explains what is problematic about the fact/opinion distinction taught to second graders as part of the Common Core curriculum in the United States. As he points out, its definition of “fact” (“Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven”) conflates the metaphysics of facts from the epistemology concerning how we learn, or fail to learn, what facts there are; in distinguishing these “facts” from “opinion” (“What someone thinks, feels, or believes”), we get the uncomfortable result that believing a truth, even a proven fact, nevertheless counts as (mere) opinion. Yet the comments on his article are dominated by people presupposing such mistakes in order to critique his very explanation of the conflation. Such commenters mistake our being in a good position (epistemically) to claim something as a fact, with whether the fact holds. But whether we’re in a good position to know (or test, or prove) something as fact is a different thing from whether that something is the case. Many commenters also infer from disagreement about some matter to the conclusion that there are no facts of the matter. Both approaches make similar mistakes to Tetralogue’s relativist Zac: they let what we can know or prove determine what truths there are to know. Their trouble is, as Roxana puts it, a “confusion of truth with certainty.”
Though written for a broad audience, Tetralogue contains plenty to entice professional philosophers. The interlocutors consider the relationship between acknowledging our fallibilist tendency to be wrong about some things we strongly believe and even take ourselves to know, and our desire to retreat to probabilistic or hedged language when we begin to doubt our evidence or when we encounter others who believe differently. As Sarah concludes, “Making ‘I know’ too hard and ‘I may be wrong’ too easy are two sides of the same coin. It’s pointless to set a standard for ‘I know’ we never meet, and equally pointless to set a standard for ‘I may be wrong’ we always meet.”
Similarly intriguing is their discussion over the knotty question of how to decide what counts as evidence for or against some hypothesis (for example, that there is witchcraft): should it be the kind of thing which all people agree is evidence, or which all reasonable people would accept as evidence, or which no reasonable people have good reason to reject as evidence? For one person’s interpretation of their experience is another person’s rejected evidence. If Bob’s experience indicates to him that there is witchcraft, and Sarah’s experience is that there is no witchcraft, how are they to settle the matter rationally? When the evidence is itself in dispute, disagreements can seem intractable precisely because what one party accepts as rationally supporting his or her view is itself rejected by the other party for not being the right kind of thing to support that view.
By the final chapter, we find Sarah endorsing an absolutism or realism about empirical truths but inclining to a relativism about morality. She comes to see that relativism about morality (“that’s wrong for me, but may not be for you”) has the drawback of not being generalizable to those who might not share her moral values. That can seem attractive, but it creates paralysis when one thinks one has a moral obligation to intervene to prevent some evil. Acting on the basis of moral obligation seems to require one to think of that moral obligation in absolute rather than relative terms: to be consistent about why one ought to free slaves or prevent a murder, one must regard slavery or murder as not being wrong just from one’s own point of view, but being wrong simpliciter. It won’t much justify one’s intervention to say to the would-be murderer, “I’m stopping you because I think that’s wrong, but it may well be right from your point of view.” What would adequately justify that action is simply its being wrong to murder.
One virtue of Williamson’s Tetralogue is that the astute reader will observe bits of themselves in some of the characters and discover some difficulties with ways they might’ve tried to support their own views. The characters each present compelling challenges to points made by others. Progress is made by gaining clarity about what is at stake in, say, endorsing relativism about truth or morality, or denying the availability of knowledge in the face of disagreement, or thinking of knowledge and truth exclusively in terms of their relationship to social and political power.
Yet Williamson’s Tetralogue leaves many of the issues unsettled; the journey of reflection on these thoughts does not end at the train’s last stop. As such, it is a valuable introduction to rich intellectual topics which await further exploration for those with an appetite for more.